As if there weren’t enough misplaced “OUTRAGE!” on the Internet over misleading photos and deceptively-edited videos, prepare for it to get even worse.
This week, an astonishing example went viral of the latest online threat to the truth: “deepfake” videos. Computer graphic technology has progressed to the point that anyone with some computer skills and a top quality home PC can create CGI effects as good as anything in a Hollywood movie. That includes being able to transpose anyone’s face onto someone else’s body and create a fake video that makes it look as if they committed a crime, made a porn movie or some other footage that can ruin someone’s life and reputation.
The extent of the progress in home video effects was made shockingly clear with this video by an anonymous Reddit poster dubbed “VillainGuy” who used a free software program to combine a clip of an interview with Jennifer Lawrence and the face of actor Steve Buscemi, creating a completely realistic digital hybrid of the two dubbed "Jennifer Buscemi."
So what will this new technology mean for the future? Will it lead to a tsunami of fake videos, with millions of people creating them to slander their political opponents, ex-spouses and others they hold grudges against? Or will the public quickly learn that they can no longer believe anything they see, so that video evidence loses its power to convince anyone?
I might make the argument that it doesn’t matter one way or the other because many people already assess the reliability of video evidence entirely subjectively, based on whatever they want to be true.
For instance, just last week, we saw thousands of people on the Internet, some of them media professionals, calling for violence against some Catholic schoolboys based on a deceptively edited video. But even after the full video and more facts about the participants emerged, completely disproving the original narrative, many clung to their first response, searching for ways to justify it. Some even claimed that the boy at the center of it deserved to be punched in the face just because his smile (or “smirk”) represented the face of smug, racist, white supremacy. Actually, it was just the uncomfortable smile of a kid being put on the spot in public and trying to be nice while not knowing how to react or what was happening. But he was guilty because his face in a photo rubbed them the wrong way.
If you can look at a smiling teenage boy and think you’re staring into the hateful face of pure evil, then the very concept of “photographic evidence” is already useless for you.
Likewise, some people already refuse to believe real, verifiable video evidence if it conflicts with their preconceived notions. And if those people have political power and the media on their side, their denial of reality can be spread, enforced and reinforced.
James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas has released a number of undercover videos exposing the hypocrisy, dishonesty and even outright criminality of various figures on the left, only to see his critics dismiss them as “misleadingly edited” (even if there are no edits), and the media take that claim at face value and ignore the videos. This also happened when the pro-life group, the Center for Medical Progress, released undercover videos allegedly showing Planned Parenthood employees willfully violating federal and state medical and ethical standards, including selling baby parts to research labs.
The response from Planned Parenthood and its defenders (aside from trying to jail the reporters for doing their job) was to claim that the videos were “deceptively edited,” even though the CMP released the full, unedited versions that did not alter the narrative.
Now, that lie has been officially debunked by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. Last week, that court lifted an injunction on Texas stripping Planned Parenthood of Medicaid funds in a decision that slammed PP on a number of issues, including its claim that the video evidence was “deceptively edited.”
The judges wrote, “The record reflects that (the Texas Office of Inspector General) had submitted a report from a forensic firm concluding that the video was authentic and not deceptively edited. And (Planned Parenthood) did not identify any particular omission or addition in the video footage.”
There it is: experts examined it and declared it real. A federal appeals court gave Planned Parenthood ample opportunity to offer evidence to the contrary, and they did not or could not. And yet, I bet if you went onto the Internet a year from now, you would find countless people on social media, and even in the professional press, still referring to those videos as "debunked," “phony” or “deceptively edited.”
So I have to wonder: what difference does it make how easy it becomes to create realistic-looking fake videos if people are willing to believe videos they know are fake or disbelieve videos they know are real, as long as it confirms what they want to believe?
I don’t know what the solution to this scary disregard for critical thinking might be, but I am thinking of launching a new online business. I plan to sell genuine autographed photos of Jennifer Buscemi for only $100 each.