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.

statue_liberty

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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The Day ‘Student Voice’ Almost Died

Thankfully, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I have been reprimanded during my career in education. But during the late-1990’s – at about the time the provincial Conservatives were deep into slashing and burning education and health care budgets – I decided enough was enough.

It was the Harris Tories’ threat to kill the stand alone grade 11 media studies course that made it personal and put me over the edge. The death of this course would have meant the end of a golden opportunity for many of my academically challenged students to graduate. You see, that course, for many, represented a chance to earn a ‘5th English credit’ that students needed to graduate with their Ontario Secondary School Graduation Diploma.

Not only that, the media course contained content (movies, music videos, magazine/tv advertisements etc.) in which most were deeply engaged and immersed on a daily basis. Students who wouldn’t dare dream of raising their hand in Algebra or History class – felt at ease and in complete control when analysing a music video or Superbowl TV spot in media class.

mass media & pop culture

Through such a course – they were able to ‘pull back the curtain’ on pop culture and get a valuable glimpse into how and why various media are able to effectively use marketing and cinematic techniques to construct meaning, manipulate and control an audience.

So upon learning that the government was intent upon gutting the media literacy credit – without consulting teachers or students – I got mad, then I got inspired. What if my students and I actually staged a media event (silent protest) to make others aware of this threat?

I sprang the idea on my students the next day and took a vote to see if they were interested in my plan. All were in favor (by show of hands) of: inviting the local media to our class, wearing black clothing and duct tape across their mouths (both optional – to symbolize that they were silently mourning the fact they had not been consulted in the decision to axe their course). Most of the class time would be spent writing and editing letters to their local MPPs expressing their thoughts at the government’s decision.

Of course, once the media arrived and the school’s administration discovered what was happening in Redfearn’s media class – guess who was summoned to the office and, not surprisingly, ‘raked over the coals’?

As I sat sheepishly in front of the admin team of three and endured their rebukes and indignation – I empathized with them. They were completely blind-sided by my actions. Yet, had I tipped them off before hand – I risked having the protest squashed before it began. Their biggest concerns – that they were not consulted and that the ‘image of the school’ would be adversely affected. Seeing students’ mouths bound with duct tape had, I think, something to do with it.

Fortunately, the media coverage was minimal. A segment ran on the local TV station at noon and later that evening (see YouTube video below) and an article with photo did run in the local section of The Record but the admin’s fear that pandemonium would be loosed upon the world was unfounded.

Instead, my students actually witnessed the media in action and THEY were part of the process: they took part in media interviews with local reporters, wrote to their elected representatives about how they felt about the government’s decision and watched, critiqued, filmed and edited TV and print coverage of their event.

In retrospect, I truly believe it was one of the most powerful learning experiences I and my students had ever been a part of. By taking part in the silent protest, ironically, my students actually found their ‘voice’.  And isn’t that what real learning is all about?

P.S. There was such a ground swell (provincially) from people outraged over the potential loss of the media studies stand alone course – that the Conservative government of the day backed down from its original decision to cut it.