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Ann Coulter has said some outrageous things in the past. Yet, it was still a shock to hear her, on Fox News, proclaim that the child migrants being detained along the southern U.S. border — forcibly separated from their parents, rounded up, and placed in caged enclosures in abandoned big box stores — are “child actors.”
“I would also say one other thing, these child actors weeping and crying on all the other networks 24–7 right now,” Coulter said on The Next Revolution. “Do not fall for it, Mr. President. I get very nervous about the president getting his news from TV… These kids are given scripts to read, according to the New Yorker.” (The New Yorker piece she was referring to is from 2011 and, unsurprisingly, is also far more nuanced and sympathetic in its description of the stories people sometimes tell, or embellish, when applying for asylum.)
Thanks in large part to popular conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, the concept of “crisis actors” is a now a depressingly familiar trope. The theory, usually cited in the days following a terrorist attack and/or mass shooting, is that such events are purely for show — an attempt by someone to curtail individual freedoms by inventing incidents that cause moral outcry and shock, and that prompt calls for new legislation.
According to Jones, mass shootings, for instance, are what he calls “false flag” events, allegedly designed to end private gun ownership in the U.S. (though no such thing has yet happened). Adherents to these ideas create second-to-second, slo-mo dissections of everything from security footage to news coverage to, they argue, reveal the ‘true’ nature of the events. (Sandy Hook families are currently suing Jones over his comments.)
Coulter’s intentions appear to be similar, if lacking the accompanying YouTube forensic examination.
She wants to dissuade politicians, including President Donald Trump, from ending an immoral policy by persuading them the controversy surrounding it is completely fabricated and to convince everyone that the images we are seeing are forgeries and, crucially, cannot be trusted.
Saying these are pictures of actors are ridiculous, fanciful, and dangerous claims. But people believe them. What happens if they become mainstream?
Images — pictures and video — are the dominant medium of our era, both in how we interpret the world around us, and in how we want the world to interpret us.
And they have undergone an important metamorphosis in recent years, from being one important factor in determining the validity of an event or even existence, to being virtually the only determining factor. The dictum of “pic or it didn’t happen” might highlight the banality of social media (that everything must be documented or be assumed as non-existent), but that the phrase has become such a cliché of our times speaks to its central importance in current society. The totality of images assumes that if something is not recorded in some way — if we can’t see it with our own eyes — then for all intents and purposes, it does not exist.
Moreover, we are conditioned to regard pictures and video as more than just a way to orient ourselves in society and our world. They have been elevated beyond merely a tool to make sense of things. Rather, our lives have become a function of the images we consume and create. The images we produce and consume are no longer dependent on the reality we experience. Instead, our sense of reality is now dependent on them.
In this regard, conspiracy theorists who want to undermine the validity of images are already worrisome enough. But in the near future, they may be armed with more than just an argument, or the technical ability examine existing video to build their case. They might have what looks like proof.
Recently, a video clip made the rounds on social media. Prepared for the SIGGRAPH 2018 conference in Vancouver in August, it showed a new version of video manipulation software.
The new program, called Deep Video Portraits, shows a nearly seamless duplication of one person’s facial expressions and mouth movements onto a video of someone else — in the example cases, politicians. Where earlier programs were limited “to manipulation of facial expression only,” the academics who developed it wrote in a paper detailing their project, “we are the first to transfer the full 3D head position, head rotation, face expression, eye gaze, and eye blinking from a source actor to a portrait video of a target actor.”
The videos the team was able to create are low-resolution, and are not without flaws. But the strides that have been made over the course of just a year suggest that in short order, someone will enhance the technique still further, and manipulated videos will be even less decipherable from the originals.
Paired with similar advancements in audio technology — that allow any voice to be mimicked — there are potentially profound consequences to things like politics, justice, or media if this type of video manipulation becoming widespread, cheap, and accessible.
In closing remarks, the researchers write that, “on a broader scale…democratization of advanced high-quality video editing possibilities, offered by our and other methods, calls for additional care in ensuring verifiable video authenticity, e.g. through invisible watermarking.”
Perhaps watermarking will save us. But more likely, should this technology become widespread (or more widespread, as DeepFakes have already entered the porn world — often a harbinger of broader societal usage), it won’t be enough, and we will watch these videos without seeing them for what they are.
And because of the central role the image plays in our society, if that scenario becomes reality — if such software becomes cheap and accessible and widespread — we may be quickly dislodged from the context (historical, cultural, etc.) that images have usually been able to provide, and enter into a kind of collective existential panic. We will become unmoored, as the validity of the medium that we relied upon to provide our understanding of the world is undermined.
And then things will fracture. Thanks to the structure of social media that has, in recent years, elevated the “pic or it didn’t happen” mantra to gospel, the validity of an image increases by virtue of its distribution. More so than even now, what will go most viral will become most true, even if it’s a clever fabrication — or likely, because it is one.
We may become utterly lost.
Already, in the wake of a terrorist attack or a mass shooting, false information spreads quickly over social media, in some cases even making its way into early press reports that are later corrected (the misidentification of a Boston marathon bombing suspect is a prominent example). And while these fraudulent images of victims or falsified information about the perpetrators are quickly debunked, over time, confusion sets in. One can imagine how much worse things might be in a future where, rather than Ann Coulter making claims about “child actors,” we instead heard or saw what appeared to be Barack Obama saying something similar. How difficult that would be to debunk.
That future might still be some distance away, but it does not diminish the danger inherent in Coulter’s claims. What she seeks to do is make fringe ideas about the value of the images we see mainstream concerns. And while Coulter, and those like her, might just appear to be offering some so-called alternative facts, we should understand what’s really going on.
Hers is not just an argument for the sake of rebuttal. By targeting for destruction the relative sanctity of the medium which we rely on more and more to understand the world and ourselves, Coulter and her ilk are creating the conditions to doubt both the world around us, and our place in it. It can only lead us one place; a place where we don’t believe anything, and therefore cannot believe in anything.