Fake News 101

The seemingly recent development of ‘fake news’ reaches far beyond dodgy politics. Trump and his team of propagandists are following well trodden footsteps from political history, but the divisive and often empty rhetoric has deeper ramifications for our future. Criticising the press is one thing, but attempting to dismiss entire platforms of the fourth estate reeks of a far more worrying truth: many people do not care.

The idea of us now existing in a ‘post truth’ world, where experts and scientists can be ignored and written off as elites when their expert peer reviewed truth doesn’t suit the political narrative or agenda seems contrary to any form of democracy or evolution. Holding truth to power is such an important concept, to avoid corruption, lies and manipulation. Unfortunately that is exactly what is being deliberately undermined, for short term political gain.

According to the Washington Post: President Trump has made 9,014 false or misleading claims over 773 days which averages out to 11.66 per day, or approximately one per waking hour. If this was your child, surely they would be reprimanded and taught the importance of being an honest human being. Childrens stories like Aesops fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf exist to teach us all that honesty is critically important, and becoming known as a liar may well cost lives. It seems this is an important part of moral education that is missing from Trumps upbringing.

But what if it was a co-worker who lied once every hour? It would be unacceptable behaviour in any workplace, and thanks to documentation, email etc and layers of management and HR, they would soon be brought to account. But the world and some work environments are not so ideal – there are exploitative and dishonest people throughout society, and as with many forms of toxic behaviour the often only method is that of avoidance, i.e. removing yourself from such situations. Which is still easier said that done, with income insecurity being a primary factor in limiting such choices for many people.

So what got me to thinking about fake news?
I was watching The Daily Show with Trevor Noah the other day, it was the episode from 29th May 2019. The main guest was Jill Biden but it was a very funny segment about Mueller that I want to refer to.
I reccomend watching this, I’ve cued it to start at 6’30”

It is a very funny sequence, cleverly edited to make it seem at first like Daily Show correspondent Roy Wood Jr. is actually at the Mueller press conference and who then starts interjecting… and then walks up on to the stage! At this point I started to notice something, Muellers head didn’t seem to be quite the right scale for his body, and the tracking seemed off.. which of course makes it funnier and you start to wonder where this is all leading… When bobblehead Mueller stops Roy Wood Jr from grabbing the report, it then escalates physically with Ronny Chieng joining in and receiving a great head slam into the desk from Mueller (with some restraint from sound post)

The reason it is funny is because we know it is not real – it literally is fake news, and the VFX are great because they are clearly so bad – not even in the same park as the uncanny valley. But here is what I kept thinking about: what if it wasn’t? What if it looked absolutely real?

Given the skills & tech available for incredibly high resolution visual effects in film, something like this could be made to look completely plausible – the only issue would be the time and cost involved. Maybe it would take too long to achieve to fit in with the news cycle, or to achieve rapid turnaround would cost a lot. But that issue is evolving constantly. VFX would be one area that involves vast and constant R&D and some of the toughest demands on technology. SO if we skip forward five or ten years, an intern might be able to achieve this on their laptop. So then what?

I hadn’t seen it until now, but I read of a video tweeted by Trump of Nancy Pelosi which had been doctored. It didn’t use any VFX like on the Daily Show, the video had simply been slowed down, with pitch correction applied so her voice seemed in her usual register. The video described her as appearing ‘sickly’ and Trump dishonestly tweeted “PELOSI STAMMERS THROUGH NEWS CONFERENCE”

Where does this all lead? There is an interesting discussion of ‘deep fakes’ here but this part is especially relevant: John Villasenor, a non-resident senior fellow in governance studies and the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institute, says that fake videos like that of Pelosi as well as more sophisticated deepfake-style videos are “clearly going to be a factor in the 2020 campaign and beyond”.

What effect such videos have depends entirely on the viewer. When i was much younger and more naive, I used to believe that I was completely normal, an average human being. But over the years of working and supervising others work it soon becomes apparent that no, I am not exceptional but that no one is. We are all individuals (cue Monty Python flashback) and a task that is easy for me may be very difficult or impossible for you, and vice versa. If you ever start developing an ego about your work, or your achievements then I reccomend you go and spend some time in a hospital, at A&E, and really appreciate how little you know and how limited your critical skills are.

I presume most people who are reading this, especially by this stage, are relatively intelligent sentient human beings capable of discerning the truth. But a simple example of where on the bell curve you sit was revealed to me when a friend posted a link to a video, where a flat earther had picked apart a documentary video he made in and about Antartica (A Year On ice) and had identified hundreds of bizzare connections… I won’t post or link to it as it doesn’t deserve any oxygen but… the video has had 16,000+ views and the genius who made it has 55,000 subscribers!

Fake news is big business!
It is not a passing fad, or a quirk of Trumps agenda. It is the new normal.

Many people will not even question the validity of what they see or read, and will be directly influenced by it. And given the pace of the news cycle, it seems highly likely that strategically timed fake news has and will corrupt many aspects of politics and society. By the time the truth is actually revealed, the damage is already done and news cycle has moved on to some other scandal. The proportion of people who see and are affected by the doctored video is massive in comparison to the people who later see the truth revealed. In what often amounts to soundbite journalism there is a political saying that ‘explaining is failing’

Writing this in 2019 feels naive, like I am stating another truth which will mostly be ignored. Doing some searches produced some other funny reflections, like this one: Democracy v Psychology: why people keep electing idiots which you might think is recent but is actually from 2015.

The future is being eroded, one lie at a time.



20190602 update
dailybeast: we found the guy behind the viral drunk pelosi video





One thought on “Fake News 101

  1. Chris

    Wag The Dog
    20 years old approx
    We are in troubling times
    Couple all this fake shot with an observation that voters don’t vote on character anymore but along popularity or tribal lines and we are pretty screwed
    Great post Tim

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.