Alternative facts are near and dear to the heart of this blog, but I am afraid we may remember today’s debates over reality fondly in two decade’s time. I am going to pose a problem, prediction, and question.
In the midst of a presidential campaign that has become almost synonymous with fake news, PolitiFact wrote an article titled 17 times Donald Trump said one thing and then denied it. As always happens in cases like this, people will quibble over exact words and tone of voice, but for the most part when there is video evidence of Mr. Trump saying one thing and then saying the opposite that is the end of the debate on if the then-candidate contradicted himself.
But what if it wasn’t?
Imagine a world where realistic but fake videos and audio recordings of public figures are common place.
Thirty second attack ads showing Bernie Sanders calling for armed insurrections against the US government. Clickbait articles spreading video “proof” that Donald Trump is a Nazi; swastika, salute, holocaust denial, and all. Viral YouTube videos showing The Pope renounce his faith. The possibilities, and havoc, are bound by nothing more than our imaginations.
We don’t have this technology yet, but it is only a matter of time. Consider what Star Wars: Rogue One did with Grand Moff Tarkin:
While Disney’s CGI version of an actor that has been dead for twenty-two years is far from perfect it is disturbingly close, and would be even closer if movie goers expected low quality video footage. The uncanny valley has a bridge; the question now is where it leads.
The cost of the technology won’t keep it from entering the public discourse. Given that October Surprises can swing close US Presidential Elections, the ability to generate a severe scandal the week before an election is worth as much as choosing the outcome of a close election. To get a sense of how valuable swinging an election can be, consider 2016. The multi-billion dollar private prison industry was confronted with a front runner who campaigned on defunding them and a not-too-long-shot candidate that all but promised to give them more federal contracts. Any half-decent CEO focused on the bottom line would spend hundreds of millions of dollars on a fifteen second video of Hillary Clinton admitting to almost anything she has been accused of in the last thirty years if it would be “leaked” the first week of November.
Once the genie is out of the bottle, and video evidence can no longer be trusted, how can we be sure who is who, much less converse with our political opponents?
I predict this technology will be available for at least the most wealthy users within two decades (99% certainty), and quite possibly within one decade (80% certainty). Though democracy has struggled with this issue and print media, and we can learn from that struggle, I believe faux videos pose a more serious threat to democratic discourse. Please tell me I am losing sleep over nothing. But if the bags under my eyes are justified, how do we fight this existential threat to modern democracy?