Let’s make democracy great again

The English novelist George Orwell once observed that in a time of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. If this is accurate, then the Internet and the tsunami of so-called ‘fake news stories’ now jamming our online news feeds and flooding the collective social media landscape, makes all of us potential revolutionaries.

The recent world-wide condemnation and outcry over president Donald Trump’s immigration, health care and environmental policies, indicates that many people are finally waking up and fighting back with their own forms of ‘culture jamming’.

Massive astonishing and spontaneous public rallies in cities across the globe, not seen since the anti-nuclear movement of the early 1980’s, are signs that those citizens who sat on the sidelines during past and recent political elections, are not willing to accept alternative facts.

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Other forms of dissent involve the propaganda war, where the cyber-weapons of choice are stinging satirical memes and endless streams of phony and real news stories, all intended to persuade and convince by flooding an opponent’s news feeds.

Creators of ‘fake news’ stories have been implicated in manufacturing everything from Obama citizenship conspiracies theories, to linking Republican senator Ted Cruz’s father to the JFK assassination and tilting the result of the recent American election in Trump’s favor. In today’s ‘give me entertainment or give me death culture’, where puny attention spans and instant gratification are king – it’s not necessarily the detection of fake or fabricated news that is the issue.

In today’s ‘give me entertainment or give me death culture’, where puny attention spans and instant gratification are king – it’s not necessarily the detection of fake or fabricated news that is the issue.

With so many compelling and alluring forces vying for their daily attention: work, family, the Internet, binge-watching and dizzying array of the latest smart phones and associated apps – most people do not have the time or the inclination to fact check every pseudo-story that litters their social media news feeds or jams their inbox. Enter the newest technical audio-video manipulation advancements that will soon obliterate any existing line between what is considered fake and real.

In a paper published last year by professors at Stanford University and the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg – researchers discovered that technologists could record video of someone talking and then change their facial expressions in real time. The technology demonstrated how the facial expressions from a news clip of Russian president Vladimir Putin could be altered in real time in difficult-to-detect ways.

Other initiatives like the ‘Digital Emily Project’, a study where researchers used digital characters in place of real people, further blurs the line between fantasy and reality, making truth detection that much more elusive. Seamless digital technologies now employed by Hollywood and video-gaming industry artists, make the detection of real actors from digital avatars virtually impossible.

Advancements in audio technology have also made truth detection an increasingly daunting task. At a developer conference this past November, Adobe touted its new product nicknamed ‘Photoshop for audio’. The product allows a user to transfer around 10 to 20 minutes of their voice into the application, then allows them to type words expressed in that exact voice. The result does not sound computer-generated in the least, but uncannily real.

Imagine how real video and audio interviews of political leaders could be seamlessly twisted to further nefarious ends. For instance, audio of a comment could be generated and inserted before or following an interview (heard over a hot microphone) of a world leader making threatening comments toward another country.

Of course, all this assumes that some people still actually care whether the stories in their newsfeeds are real or fake. Increasingly, consumers of social media seem more concerned that the rivers of content cascading through their media streams support their worldview, as opposed whether any of it is true.

Historically, autocrats rely on the indifference of the masses to maintain their grip on power. Give the masses ‘bread and circuses’ and they will be happy. Given the choice between the awesome power and responsibility of the freedom to choose what’s in the interest of the common good versus ‘bread and circuses’ – I would suspect those in power hope the people continue to choose the latter.

Ironically, it may just be the Orwellian policies of the Trump administration that stir the consciences and souls of the multitudes that tip the balance in making democracy in America great again. The alternative is a darker world, where, theoretically, two plus two could equal five.

Sources:
Vanityfair.com – http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/01/fake-news-technology
1984. George Orwell.

Photo Credit: Michael Redfearn

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