2017 - the year truth died & reality was lost
This is not a Trump rant.
If you came here expecting me to go ballistic on any number of his mistakes, you will be disappointed. This is a post about the convergence of trends and technology. This is about the supremacy of evolved human biases and, ultimately, the ugly truth about the truth. Don’t get me wrong, Trump will be a topic of discussion here. I mean, how could he not? He just isn’t the focus.
Let’s start at the end. Well, the beginning of the end. Not at the beginning of the start, because that gets way more philosophical than you want. No, the beginning of the end, which happens to be now. 2017.
Today, researcchers at the University of Washington released this video of former President Obama:
The thing is, that video is not of him saying those things. It was generated and synced to an audio clip of his voice. Think about that. They photo shopped the video.
Okay, Okay, the video isn’t that great. You can tell something is off. But if we have learned anything, it is that tech advances faster than we are ready for it. This wasn’t a hollywood remastering job that required dozens of artists and took 6 months. This is a tech that, over time, will be as easy to use as Adobe Photoshop. That, combined with the ability to take various sounds and recombine them to form all the words in a language, like Apple did for Siri and Amazon did for Alexa and Google did for it’s Google Assistant, and you have a radical new tool for spreading disinformation.
In the not too distant future a political rival, or their surrogates, will be able to generate video of their opponent saying whatever they want. And it will be as tough to distinguish the fake video from a real one as it is to spot a very well photo shopped image. Imagine generating a dimly lit video of Obama talking about some fictitious terrorist plot, and then anonymously uploading it to YouTube and watch the fall out.
This is where the failings of human psychology step in. These artificial videos do not need to be perfect. They merely need to be above our level of disbelief. An important term from Hollywood applies here — suspension of disbelief, the line you need to cross to make someone forget they are watching something fake. This line is well short of perfect. Our fake video of Obama would be real enough to enough people to cause untold damage. We have seen this with Photoshop. Yes, some uses of it can be amazing but also obviously fake. Others, not so much.
We saw clearly in this election cycle that Trump benefited from fake news on social media. What was interesting is that the click rate of those articles was awful. No one clicked into them, they just read the headline, and then shared it themselves. Had they looked more closely, they may have noticed the website was disreputable, or clearly meant to be a facsimile of another, mainstream site. But they didn’t, because fake news doesn’t need to rise to the standard of truth, just above our suspension of disbelief.
The fake news headlines could have read, “Hillary Clinton works with Martians to take away your gun rights.” But they didn’t, because this slips just below our ability to suspend disbelief. This is the land that those ridiculous tabloids at checkout aisles have always lived in: the headline is so absurd it never gets traction.
But fake news has evolved. It has gotten better. “BREAKING: Tens of thousands of fraudulent Clinton Votes found in Ohio Warehouse” does not fall below that suspension of disbelief threshold. It isn’t outlandish. It falls within the realm of possible. What happens when the headline is accompanied by video of the perpetrator saying exactly what was claimed?
This is what I mean when I say the truth died this year. It’s not just that Trump lies with impunity. He is hardly the first crooked politician. It’s the erosion of the idea of objective truth. It’s the erosion of our skill in recognizing fakeness. And, perhaps worst of all, its the erosion of our desire to not to be fooled. easily a third of our population just doesn’t care enough to get it right.
On top of all that, the truth has always been hard to identify in the first place. Philosophy students the world over have struggled and watched as the idea of objective truth was torn apart in their classes. And, of course, as the age old adage goes, everyone knows there are two sides to a story. Whose story is right?
The truth has always been fungible, but before there was an epicenter that didn’t budge much. We had an anchor, a north star. That is clearly gone now; we are all adrift in a sea of opinion photo shopped to look like news. And it’s getting worse.
In George Orwell’s 1984, the antagonist proclaims (spoiler alert!), “The truth is whatever the party says it is!” Orwell seems to have gotten this pretty damn spot on, but he got one thing devastatingly wrong. He assumed that facts still mattered. He assumed that the fascist group that controlled the truth would need to use violence to do so. He never imagined that, without a single bullet fired, the entire idea of truth could be disbanded. That the world would be flooded in plausible sounding lies until the truth lost it’s superior standing.
And he never imagined that our reaction to all this would be a like and a share.
The only thing that gives me any hope at all is the wisdom behind this quote, ironically by George Orwell himself:
But cognitive dissonance is very strong. I wonder what nationality will get blamed as Floridians pack up and abandon their homes to ever rising tides?
Written by Page Russell.
Follow me while I complain about stuff on twitter: @pagerussell