Monday, July 22, 2019

Seeing Hasn't Been Believing For Some Time

As you may have been reminded recently, the second person to walk on the moon was Edwin Eugene "Buzz" Aldrin Jr., who accompanied Neil Armstrong in the lunar module during the Apollo 11 flight in July of 1969.  A common problem faced by the lunar astronauts was what to do with the rest of your life afterwards, and one thing Aldrin did was to make public appearances about his astronaut career.  On Sept. 9, 2002, Aldrin showed up at a Beverly Hills hotel expecting to be interviewed on camera for a Japanese children's television program.  Instead, waiting for him was one Bart Sibrel, a sometime documentary filmmaker who has made a career out of promoting the idea that NASA's moon landings were all faked in a secret CIA-operated studio.  Sibrel, accompanied by his own film crew, aggressively tried to get Aldrin to swear on a Bible that he had landed on the moon, and when Aldrin declined to do that in front of cameras and told Sibrel to leave him alone, Sibrel called him a "thief, liar, and coward" and reportedly backed him against a wall and poked him with the Bible.  In response, the 72-year-old Aldrin punched the 250-pound Sibrel in the jaw, but no charges were filed. 

Sibrel has made a career out of claiming that all the visual evidence (as well as physical evidence in the form of moon rocks distributed around the world) showing that men have been to the moon was essentially an elaborate "deepfake."  The word was not invented in 1969, but the concept of lying is as old as humanity.  For reasons of his own, Sibrel thinks (or at least appears to think) that NASA and the CIA concocted an extremely elaborate lie and backed it up with artificially-generated visual evidence. 

In 1969, there was no such thing as advanced computer graphics that could take images from different sources and combine them seamlessly to make it look like, for example, actor Tom Hanks was in the same room with President John F. Kennedy, as the movie "Forrest Gump" showed in 1994 in one of the first films that took advantage of computer-generated imagery (CGI).  Well, the great democratizing force known as IT has now brought the simpler kinds of digital fakery to the masses.  Some people are worried that simple tricks such as speeding up or slowing down authentic videos will cause more trouble than the sophisticated deepfakes that even experts have problems detecting. 

A recent Associated Press article describes how U. S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi was made to appear physically impaired by simply playing back a recording of her at a slower speed.  While some such tricks are pulled purely for satirical purposes, digital forensics expert Hany Field worries that unsophisticated voters will be fooled by them nonetheless.  He called the doctored Pelosi video, which got over two million views on Facebook, "a canary in a coal mine," and expects the 2020 election year will see many more such crude trick fakes, which one could call shallowfakes.

According to some studies quoted in the article, some groups of voters (older ones and "ultra-conservatives," whatever that means) tend to trust videos more and will retweet, and otherwise treat as credible, videos that younger and less conservative people will quickly recognize as having been altered.  I have seen this sort of effect myself as I have watched an otherwise sensible and well-balanced woman of my acquaintance lap up stuff on Facebook that I consider arrant nonsense, on occasion. 

It's possible that such people hold all Facebook information in a different category in their minds from things that people they trust tell them in person, and that it's a sort of entertainment more than a serious search for the real truth.  But all this lies in the uncertain realm of what may influence voters, which includes everything from the weather to the state of one's health.  And as such, we can only speculate on its effects.

Two possible ways mentioned by the news article to mitigate any negative effects of shallowfakes are so-called "downranking" by social media outlets such as Facebook, and adding fact-checking information to suspicious-looking videos or information such as labels saying "This video has been altered from its original state."  The problem with this is that it puts the social-media operators in the role of censor, or at least editor.  And depending on the political character of the shallowfake and the political leanings of the censor or editor, someone is sure to cry "Foul!" at such actions, or at least point out equally egregious shallowfakes on the opposite end of the political spectrum that haven't been censored, edited, or labeled as such.  That is a quagmire that organizations like Facebook may not care to wade into, and I'm not sure they should.

One thing is for certain:  the video-altering genie of cheap and easily available software is not going back into its bottle.  And any thought of government regulation or censorship moves us in the direction of dictatorships like China, where members of minority groups such as Uighurs get sent to what amounts to concentration camps simply for trying to get in touch with other Uighurs on social media. 

So perhaps the answer is a better-educated electorate.  Civics education in this country is reportedly in terrible shape anyway, as many history texts seem to concentrate on everything bad our forefathers did (excuse me, should I say "forepeople"?  No, I shouldn't.).  I do recall one lesson I learned from a high-school history book, which was that after the famous purges of the 1930s in the Soviet Union where whole rafts of bureaucrats were executed at Stalin's whim, new editions of history books carried photos of the Great Leader from which certain undesirables had been airbrushed away, without comment.  I was warned in the 1970s against that sort of thing happening, and so today we should warn our high-schoolers against the danger of both deepfakes and shallowfakes.  But after that, it's up to them to judge—and to vote.

Sources:  The Associated Press article about deepfakes and shallowfakes by Beatrice Dupuy and Barbara Ortutay, dated July 19,was carried by many news outlets, including the Longview (Texas) News-Journal at  The Aldrin-Sibrel incident is described in the Wikipedia article "Buzz Aldrin."

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