In just a few short months, “deep fakes” are striking fear in technology experts and lawmakers. Already there are legislative proposals, a law review article, national security commentaries, and dozens of opinion pieces claiming that this new deep fake technology — which uses artificial intelligence to produce realistic-looking simulated videos — will spell the end of truth in media as we know it.
But will that future come to pass?
Much of the fear of deep fakes stems from the assumption that this is a fundamentally new, game-changing technology that society has not faced before. But deep fakes are really nothing new; history is littered with deceptive practices — from Hannibal’s fake war camp to Will Rogers’ too-real impersonation of President Truman to Stalin’s disappearing of enemies from photographs. And society’s reaction to another recent technological tool of media deception — digital photo editing and Photoshop — teaches important lessons that provide insight into deep fakes’ likely impact on society.
In 1990, Adobe released the groundbreaking Adobe Photoshop to compete in the quickly-evolving digital photograph editing market. This technology, and myriad competitors that failed to reach the eventual popularity of Photoshop, allowed the user to digitally alter real photographs uploaded into the program. While competing services needed some expertise to use, Adobe designed Photoshop to be user-friendly and accessible to anyone with a Macintosh computer.
With the new capabilities came new concerns. That same year, Newsweek published an article called, “When Photographs Lie.” As Newsweek predicted, the consequences of this rise in photographic manipulation techniques could be disastrous: “Take China’s leaders, who last year tried to bar photographers from exposing [the leaders’] lies about the Beijing massacre. In the future, the Chinese or others with something to hide wouldn’t even worry about photographers.”
These concerns were not entirely without merit. Fred Ritchin, formerly the picture editor of The New York Times Magazine who is now the Dean Emeritus of the International Center of Photography School, has continued to argue that trust in photography has eroded over the past few decades thanks to photo-editing technology:
There used to be a time when one could show people a photograph and the image would have the weight of evidence—the “camera never lies.” Certainly photography always lied, but as a quotation from appearances it was something viewers counted on to reveal certain truths. The photographer’s role was pivotal, but constricted: for decades the mechanics of the photographic process were generally considered a guarantee of credibility more reliable than the photographer’s own authorship. But this is no longer the case.
It is true that the “camera never lies” saying can no longer be sustained — the camera can and often does lie when the final product has been manipulated. Yet the crisis of truth that Ritchin and Newsweek predicted has not come to pass.
Why? Because society caught on and adapted to the technology.
Think back to June 1994, when Time magazine ran O.J. Simpson’s mugshot on the cover of its monthly issue. Time had drastically darkened the mugshot, making Simpson appear much darker than he actually was. What’s worse, Newsweek ran the unedited version of the mugshot, and the two magazines sat side-by-side on supermarket shelves. While Time defended this as an artistic choice with no intended racial implications, the obviously edited photograph triggered massive public outcry.
Bad fakes were only part of the growing public awareness of photographic manipulation. For years, fashion magazines have employed deceptive techniques to alter the appearance of cover models. Magazines with more attractive models on the cover generally sell more copies than those featuring less attractive ones, so editors retouch photos to make them more appealing to the public. Unfortunately, this practice created an unrealistic image of beauty in society and, once this was discovered, health organizations began publically warning about the dangers this phenomenon caused — most notably eating disorders. And due to the ensuing public outcry, families across the country became aware of photo-editing technology and what it was capable of.
Does societal adaptation mean that no one falls for photo manipulation anymore? Of course not. But instead of prompting the death of truth in photography, awareness of the new technology has encouraged people to use other indicators — such as trustworthiness of the source — to make informed decisions about whether an image presented is authentic. And as a result, news outlets and other publishers of photographs have gone on to establish policies and make decisions regarding the images they use with an eye toward fostering their audience’s trust. For example, in 2003, the Los Angeles Times quickly fired a reporter who had digitally altered Iraq War photographs because the editors realized that publishing a manipulated image would diminish their reader’s perception of the paper’s veracity.
No major regulation or legislation was needed to prevent the apocalyptic vision of Photoshop’s future; society adapted on its own.
Now, however, the same “death of truth” claims — mainly in the context of fake news and disinformation — ring out in response to deep fakes as new artificial-intelligence and machine-learning technology enter the market. What if someone released a deep fake of a politician appearing to take a bribe right before an election? Or of the president of the United States announcing an imminent missile strike? As Andrew Grotto, International Security Fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, predicts, “This technology … will be irresistible for nation states to use in disinformation campaigns to manipulate public opinion, deceive populations and undermine confidence in our institutions.” Perhaps even more problematic, if society has no means to distinguish a fake video from a real one, any person could have plausible deniability for anything they do or say on film: It’s all fake news.
But who is to say that societal response to deep fakes will not evolve similarly to the response to digitally edited photographs?
Right now, deep fake technology is far from flawless. While some fakes may appear incredibly realistic, others have glaring imperfections that can alert the viewer to their forged nature. As with Photoshop and digital photograph editing before it, poorly made fakes generated through cellphone applications can educate viewers about the existence of this technology. When the public becomes aware, the harms posed by deep fakes will fail to materialize to the extent predicted.
Indeed, new controversies surrounding the use of this technology are likewise increasing public awareness about what the technology can do. For example, the term “deep fake” actually comes from a Reddit user who began using this technology to generate realistic-looking fake pornographic videos of celebrities. This type of content rightfully sparked outrage as an invasion of the depicted person’s privacy rights. As public outcry began to ramp up, the platform publically banned the deep fake community and any involuntary pornography from its website. As with the public outcry that stemmed from the use of Photoshop to create an unrealistic body image, the use of deep fake technology to create inappropriate and outright appalling content will, in turn, make the public more aware of the technology, potentially stemming harms.
Perhaps most importantly, many policymakers and private companies have already begun taking steps to educate the public about the existence and capabilities of deep fakes. Notable lawmakers such as Sens. Mark Warner of Virginia, and Ben Sasse of Nebraska, have recently made deep fakes a major talking point. Buzzfeed released a public service announcement from “President Obama,” which was in fact a deep fake video with a voice-over from Jordan Peele, to raise awareness of the technology. And Facebook recently announced that it is investing significant resources into deep fake identification and detection. With so much focus on educating the public about the existence and uses of this technology, it will be more difficult for bad actors to successfully spread harmful deep fake videos.
That is not to say deep fakes do not pose any new harms or threats. Unlike Photoshop, anyone with a smartphone can use deep fake technology, meaning that a larger number of deep fakes may be produced and shared. And unlike during the 1990s, significantly more people use the internet to share news and information today, facilitating the dissemination of content across the globe at breakneck speeds.
However, we should not assume that society will fall into an abyss of deception and disinformation if we do not take steps to regulate the technology. There are many significant benefits that the technology can provide, such as aging photos of children missing for decades or creating lifelike versions of historical figures for children in class. Instead of rushing to draft legislation, lawmakers should look to the past and realize that deep fakes are not some unprecedented problem. Instead, deep fakes simply represent the newest technique in a long line of deceptive audiovisual practices that have been used throughout history. So long as we understand this fact, we can be confident that society will come up with ways of mitigating new harms or threats from deep fakes on its own.
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