Messing With Our Minds

As if the websites peddling conspiracy theories and political propaganda weren’t enough, we now have to contend with “Deepfakes.” Deepfakes, according to the Brookings Institution, are 

videos that have been constructed to make a person appear to say or do something that they never said or did. With artificial intelligence-based methods for creating deepfakes becoming increasingly sophisticated and accessible, deepfakes are raising a set of challenging policy, technology, and legal issues.

Deepfakes can be used in ways that are highly disturbing. Candidates in a political campaign can be targeted by manipulated videos in which they appear to say things that could harm their chances for election. Deepfakes are also being used to place people in pornographic videos that they in fact had no part in filming.

Because they are so realistic, deepfakes can scramble our understanding of truth in multiple ways. By exploiting our inclination to trust the reliability of evidence that we see with our own eyes, they can turn fiction into apparent fact. And, as we become more attuned to the existence of deepfakes, there is also a subsequent, corollary effect: they undermine our trust in all videos, including those that are genuine. Truth itself becomes elusive, because we can no longer be sure of what is real and what is not.

The linked article notes that researchers are trying to devise technologies to detect deep fakes, but until there are apps or other tools that will identify these very sophisticated forgeries, we are left with “legal remedies and increased awareness,” neither of which is very satisfactory.

We already inhabit an information environment that has done more damage to social cohesion than previous efforts to divide and mislead. Thanks to the ubiquity of the Internet and social media (and the demise of media that can genuinely be considered “mass”), we are all free to indulge our confirmation biases–free to engage in what a colleague dubs “motivated reasoning.” It has become harder and harder to separate truth from fiction, moderate spin from outright propaganda.

One result is that thoughtful people–people who want to be factually accurate and intellectually honest–are increasingly unsure of what they can believe.

What makes this new fakery especially dangerous is that, as the linked article notes, most of us do think that “seeing is believing.” We are far more apt to accept visual evidence than other forms of information. There are already plenty of conspiracy sites that offer altered photographic “evidence”–of the aliens who landed at Roswell, of purportedly criminal behavior by public figures, etc. Now people intent on deception have the ability to make those alterations virtually impossible to detect.

Even if technology is developed that can detect fakery, will “motivated” reasoners rely on it?

Will people be more likely to believe a deepfake or a detection algorithm that flags the video as fabricated? And what should people believe when different detection algorithms—or different people—render conflicting verdicts regarding whether a video is genuine?

We are truly entering a new and unsettling “hall of mirrors” version of reality.


  1. Another insightful and timely piece, Shiela. The onslaught of ‘deepfake’ was founded in rag print showcased by unwitting grocery retail to convert labor intensive checkout lanes into profit centers. This evolved during our generation from the time we first shopped with Mom. That is one reason today we choose Whole Foods and Costco for a higher quality shopping experience. And now we learn of the close relationship between National Enquirer publishers and the Trump Campaign Organization. Purveyors of artificial sleeze have crafted their shtick to penetrate every form of media that has had a profound impact on sectors of public opinion exploited by the Trump Campaign. This can be countered with smart tactics of a powerful truth campaign supported by non-partisan trustworthy watchdogs. There will always be buyers of sleeze rags along with their mustard and pickles, but we will and must be ready to initiate credible truth and counter ‘deepfake’.

  2. I’m glad I’m old and won’t have to watch the final chapters of humanity’s self-inflicted wounds.

  3. It seems that we believe what we want to believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, so I’m not sure how much difference this will make. Always be skeptical!

  4. are the microsoft employees also seeing fakes in war design? 90 employees so far have signed a letter,they have no intent on” faking “war masks,for the military. same issue,fake,to desenseitze the person shooting the weapon,like its a game..ive watched a few of these short vids ,,the fakes,where they are discussing the parts added,and taken,and the outcome(obama) if the miltary was under such a plan,who needs generals? if A I was the new norm,who needs a mind? and who will decide those questions,for,AI?when we discuss how far tech will overrun jobs,do we have a end game? theres a need for a cabinet in the white house for the future,whos minding that game? wall streets greed?wheres the end game,where we warehouse humans,with AI guards,who merely have one routine,or its death?
    my wife just watched THX1138 by geo lucas,she didnt understand the ending? but sure got the picture when i told her what it ment..where do we end the games?and educate the masses that this world,goverment,and self determination,is not,a game?

  5. It is not only videos; recently “Being Liberal” posted on Facebook a picture of a portion of a dollar bill; also posted the “In God We Trust” motto and defined the Latin logo “E. Pluribus Unum” to mean ” Out of One, Many”. This is incorrect; the true definition of “E. Pluribus Unum” means “OUT OF MANY, ONE” which defines our title the UNITED States and the importance of our UNION, the goal of the Civil War and the meaning of President Abraham Lincoln’s words, “A House divided cannot stand.” I researched “Being Liberal”; it is not an organization but only a Facebook page.

    I clicked on “Being Liberal” posted under the picture and was taken to their Facebook page; I sent a message asking them to please correct the error. Received an immediate message that due to their many friends, etc., etc., to go to their website for more information which I clicked on. It immediately brought up the “Being Liberal” Facebook page…including the message I had just sent them. I was surprised at the lack of response to my reply regarding the true…and vital…meaning of the term “E. Pluribus Unum” and those who simply clicked “Like”. How many of their posts have I carelessly accepted and “shared”? This morning I posted comments on the Facebook “What’s on your mind” option; will see if anyone responds.

    We are all so buried under this frightening, chaotic Trump administration that it is easy to accept something on social media which, at first glance, appears to be a positive and truthful message, that I for one have become careless. Like not reading the “fine print” on a contract and getting screwed, we need to absorb the entire message, research if in doubt, before accepting even a seemingly simple Facebook post which in truth, denies the basis of the United States and the value of uniting to work to save it.

  6. In my day we were told to believe nothing we hear and half of what we see. That will now have to be amended to believing nothing we hear and nothing we see. I am sure that our Founding Fathers when enshrining the First Amendment to the Constitution in 1791 could not have envisioned the algorithm-laden technology we are (blessed or cursed with – choose one) today and, even if they could, would not know how to fashion a free speech right to constitutionalize fact from fancy. Two hundred twenty eight years later – and we don’t yet have a fix either.

    Being illiterate in matters electronic (since I am still marve!lling over the electric typewriter), I must leave the solution to expert civil libertarians. We have gone from photo crops to movies and I don’t know what to do about it. Help

  7. At the present time, sites that specialize in fact-checking things that are said by politicians are ignored by the fans of the particular politician involved, so a way to detect fake videos will not be any more convincing. People believe what they want to believe.

    In his book on the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides said that people will not search out the source of statements, but will believe the first thing they hear. Not much has changed since then.

  8. Sheila writes about deepfakes, “One result is that thoughtful people–people who want to be factually accurate and intellectually honest–are increasingly unsure of what they can believe.”

    Thoughtful people or lazy people?

    We are still consumers of media and in all markets, especially legal ones, “caveat emptor”.

    The producers of media have the upper hand and they’ve been exploiting it for decades. This isn’t a 21st-century problem. It’s just another tool in the hands of crafty manipulators.

    I believe Noam Chomsky would say that users of deepfake movies are trying to “manufacture consent for or against the target.”

    Once again, if it can be used for malice, couldn’t also be used to shine up the orange turd in the White House?

    The negative video ads done by the Koch network have been extremely good. Big Oil and Ag use great propaganda. They HAVE to manipulate because nobody told the facts would agree to have their planet destroyed, or their health negatively impacted, or to pay more for goods and services while agreeing to flat or declining wages.

    Think about the many, many, many ways we have been conned to get to this chaotic point on 2/25/2019.

    We can’t be inactive media consumers where we sit and get the news and info peddled to us. If you turn on the TV and sit back with a beer and think you’re being informed… LOL

  9. I see now on Face Book the followers of President Agent Orange and Pastor Pence are labeling Bernie Sanders as a Communist, with the Hammer and Sickle as background to a photo of Bernie. The cult followers of President Agent Orange and Pastor Pence, mindlessly “like” it and “share” it.

    Hollywood has been developing special effects for decades. Giant sets or on location shoots are no longer necessary, as computer generated back grounds can be flawlessly integrated with the actual actors. Hollywood has also had a long history of developing “stunts” integrated with computer generated images that defy natural laws to produce the block buster film.

    Why would we be surprised that computer generated images would not be used for political reasons. The Reactionary Right has a long history of using deception, to deliver a message.

    As a bit of a amateur WW 2 historian, the Nazi’s used newsreels of German Mechanized Units (tanks, trucks, etc.) which gave the impression their army was heavily mechanized and mobile. This was not the whole truth as the vast amount of German combat troops were infantry which could move no faster than Napoleon’s soldiers of the 19th century on the march. The other aspect was the German Army of WW 2, was heavily reliant on horses to move equipment and supplies.

    Like a master magician adapt at slight of hand who uses deception to draw your attention elsewhere so will the manipulators of the Internet do so too.

  10. Just fascinating Sheila, thank you!

    My only question, at least for right now, is where will this end? Will the clowns that are doing this information manipulation only stop when we cannot even trust ourselves regarding what we think or will they keep going as if this crud is some sort of propagandistic art form? I’m not thinking of big ticket items but, rather, the everyday thoughts that we have regarding any thing that requires access to information to make decisions in our personal lives or in the jobs that we may have.

    This is nothing short of a catastrophe, a catastrophe that is inflicted upon us by nefarious spin doctors at work at every level of our society, at every level of every society. Understanding what critical thinking is will help us to a point but if we are being bombarded by this from every angle on a constant basis we will very likely be overwhelmed by it and eventually go nuts.

    There are many paths that should not be followed and this definitely is not one of them. The supermarket example alluded to which is always been fascinating to me personally being placed on steroids to the detriment of all including, ultimately, those perpetrating this heinous thing. Reality will be akin to shifting sand and nothing more and I cannot see how if we end up having to face the ultimate expression of this dreadful attack on reason truth our society or any society, can survive. Still another way man has devised a way to destroy himself.

    Beam me up Scotty, please!!!

  11. And the search for the truth is not made easier by a president and a lie-loving administration who repeatedly aver that that truth is a lie. The over-sized rabbit hole in which they reside is the factory for churning out misinformation intended to obscure the facts and divide the public and it is rapidly expanding. My morning paper say that Trump’s trip to Vietnam is intended “… to expand on the successes of the previous summit.” Where I went to school, they taught that zero plus zero equals zero. Has that truth been amended or was it fake in the first place? Trump’s constant denial of climate change and denial of the vast sums of money the Pentagon is planning to spend to cope with an altered climate convince many with marble-sized brains that there’s no problem – that the most existential problem man has ever faced (nuclear war is second) doesn’t exist. We don’t have to await the coming of the totally fake world. Our president has bestowed on us an early delivery. He didn’t use a drone, but by droning on and on he has persuaded those who are too busy to think for themselves.

  12. Perhaps our only defense will be the ubiquitousness of cell phone cameras, as ironic as that may sound. The ability of alteration only extends to the original video or picture. If there are 10 or 100 or even just 3 or 4 of the same event or speech, the alteration will be the only depiction that is not the same as all the others. I know that sounds like a simplistic answer, but may be our only true defense. Many witnesses, all showing the same evidence, are much more believable than a single depiction. Of course, those who wish to manipulate may counter with their own operatives taking pictures and altering them all in order to sew further distrust.
    The only other alternative is for Americans to go to events themselves and witness what is said and done. How you testify to what you see or hear is going to be the biggest challenge if the agents of fakery continue to undermine confidence in reporting by anyone.
    How did our predecessors distinguish the truth? Maybe they did just what many do now. Trust those who tell you what you want to hear. Barnum was right. There is one born every minute. The sociopaths with no moral compass or empathy for the pain of others, with power as the ultimate motivation, have been with us since time immemorial and can spot the rubes easily. How to recognize the evil and counter it, continues to be the challenge, for us as individuals and for our democratic republic.

    Most frightening of all, when a SCOTUS Justice (Thomas) is calling into question the Constitutional guarantees of the 1st Amendment (NYT Vs. Sullivan), the warch toward authoritarian rule is almost at its goal.

  13. It can be done now by what we called back a while; Gumping. But more sophisticated methods use software that does overlays and blending of two or more actions into one seamless scene of action. AutoDesk makes some of the best software – spendy but works like a dream if you know your stuff. Any animation software worth its salt that handles 3-dimensional work is just as good, and much of it can be found for free: Blender comes immediately to mind – I always suspected this would come to become widespread in the ‘future’ – too bad the future is now. Sucks to be us, huh?

  14. JD remember the video of Jim Acosta (?) “assaulting” the intern who tried to grab his mic? There were multiple instances of the same video, one doctored and one not. The radical left (that is, the sources I trust) did a frame-by-frame comparison to show that the version promulgated by the lying liars in the WH was altered to show longer contact than actually occurred, and to support their charge of assault.

    Or maybe those communists on MSNBC altered their video to show a shorter contact, hmmm?

    We’re already there, where objective truth is fungible and all we have is manufactured outrage, spin, and lies. I like to think liberals don’t practice this but the regime in power and its plutocratic supporters absolutely do, and clearly would rather burn the place to the ground than admit they’re wrong.

    Giant Asteroid 2020!

  15. More than ever we need to educate our kids in media literacy and critical thinking. I gently refer you “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”, my “Ed D” from the ’60’s.

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