Regardless of where they stand on the great American political divide, more than half of the people surveyed recently by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and USA Facts report that they have encountered conflicting reports about the same set of facts from different sources.
I wasn’t surprised after a long career in journalism, which led me into the company of conflicting reports every day. However, I couldn’t shake a sense of gloom after spending a day earlier last month at the Journalism Under Fire conference, organized by the Santa Fe’s Council on International Relations, where I was enlightened about the gross manipulation of information these days by governments and other powerful interests worldwide.
The problem, I learned, is worse than I thought. One panelist after another described situations in which so many people are publishing information on social media to advance their personal interests that the credibility of objective journalism has suffered, fake news is promoting unrest and violent conflicts, and governments that wish to limit contact among critics are simply shutting down the Internet whenever they feel the need.
But that’s not the half of it. Ever heard of “deepfakes?” That’s the name for photographs, videos, audio tracks and the like that attempt, often with great success, to portray people saying or doing things in which they are not, in fact, engaged. They’re a tool that late-night political satirists on TV can use to hilarious effect. The trouble is that deep fakes also have the potential to deepen our distrust of what we see and hear, especially on the internet.
Perhaps the most alarming case study of how this tool can be used was outlined by panelist Rana Ayyub, a contributing writer for the Washington Post, who described her experiences in India reporting on Hindu-majority government abuse directed at Muslims.
Ayyub, a hard-charging young investigative reporter, is a member of India’s Muslim minority. After her editor declined to publish her work, which involved “becoming Hindu,” going undercover and infiltrating the power structure, she self-published a book, Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, that sold well and created powerful enemies.
Death and rape threats flooded her Twitter feed. Personal information about her and her family was published on the internet. Finally came the deepfake, a video that purported to show her performing sex acts, out there in cyberspace for anyone to see.
Hey kids, want to be a reporter when you grow up?
This abominable tool has created a veritable cottage industry to assess the validity of the videos that come pouring in to news organizations, watchdog groups and the like that aim to document human rights abuses, newsworthy events, open-mic foolishness by reckless politicians and a lot of other things that may or may not be worthy of our attention.
According to the Oxford Internet Institute, the New York Times reported recently, the number of countries with political disinformation campaigns nearly doubled to 70 in the last two years or so.
What’s to be done?
Don’t expect much help from the platforms. Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has made it clear that he has no interest in filtering even the most obvious lies by anyone who can afford a political ad, even ads that lie to targeted groups of voters about when and where they can cast their ballots. Dirty tricks have found their most influential ally.
Regulation is tricky, though. The problem goes beyond social media’s failure to censor fake news, said Journalism Under Fire panelist Sam Gregory, who leads WITNESS, a program that “supports anyone, anywhere to use video and technology to protect and defend human rights.” But technology, Gregory said, can also take down “graphic” images that, if published, could help expose wrongdoing.
Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Dana Priest of the Washington Post offered the hopeful suggestion that consumers might be able to unsheathe their powerful swords to effect reform in a social media industry that is fiercely resisting change.
So I went home and Googled “internet boycotts.” There doesn’t seem to be very much going on there. Or is there?
Michael Kelley is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.