When the web was new, we were very worried about the reliability of online content. We were moving from an environment where the means of publication were controlled. There were gatekeepers who controlled what content got published. They ensured that the information the public consumed was accurate and reliable. At least, that was the idea.
With the web, that changed because everyone suddenly had the ability to publish content. Anyone could make a web page. So we had to figure out how assess the credibility of a web site. I remember, when working on my Master’s degree in the late 90s, that information literacy was just starting to become a thing. We were worried that our students might believe everything they read online. So we tried to teach them the look critically at information resources. That work continues now, nearly a generation later.
But things have become more difficult. With the advent of Photoshop and other image editing software, it’s pretty easy to edit pictures to enhance or omit details. Sometimes, this is done for reasons of vanity, but it’s often done for political reasons as well. So now, in addition to assessing the reliability of web sites and news stories, we have to question the legitimacy of photographs, too. It’s okay. We’re getting better at it. We’re becoming more skeptical. Hopefully, we’re asking questions and citing sources and applying deductive reasoning and the scientific method to separate fact from fiction. I mean, it’s not like we’re just throwing up our hands and saying everything we don’t like is fake, right?
But here we go, making things harder again. Last year, Adobe showed a demo of its new VoCo product. With a 20 minute sample of a speaker’s voice, you can quickly and easily edit the audio and make the speaker say anything you want.
This isn’t out yet, but it’s coming in a future version of Adobe Creative Cloud, a widely used graphic arts package that includes Photoshop, InDesign, and other “standard” tools used by professionals and amateurs alike to edit digital work.
So now, you can take an audio recording and edit it as easily as a word processing document to make the speaker say anything you want. That’s really cool, but also terrifying. But wait, there’s more. Check out this research project at Stanford:
See what they’re doing there? Using nothing more complicated than a webcam, they’re mapping facial features onto an existing video. If you pair these two technologies together, you can create a video that makes any public figure say anything you want.
Sure, it’s not perfect. This is still complicated software. It’s cumbersome to use, especially when you’re trying to put all the pieces together. And the results aren’t great. You can tell from this video that the technology is not quite at the point where it’s going to fool most people.
But our job just got harder. On one level, it not too bad that we have to teach our students to think critically about video and audio. We really should have seen that coming. And we’re teaching students to think critically about information, regardless of the form. They just need to be aware that video and audio, like pictures and text, can be manipulated. Information has meta information. HOW do you know? What is the source for the position you’re taking? Why do you trust that source? We need to challenge our students and each other to make the information about the information just as important as the content itself.
But the real problem is the plausible deniability. We can no longer prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that someone said something or did something. You have video of me holding up a convenience store? Prove that it’s me and that it hasn’t been altered. You claim you have an audio recording of a public figure making misogynist / racist / anti-semitic / anti-American comments? Prove that it hasn’t been doctored. Because it’s easy to fabricate these things now, we can use the technology as a scapegoat to disavow responsibility for our words and actions.
Information literacy includes the skills of selecting and curating information, assessing reliability and credibility, and then using that information in responsible ways. I’m not convinced that it’s possible to do that anymore. And you can’t prove that I’m wrong.
Acknowledgment: Almost all of this came from the RadioLab Story “Breaking News.” Those guys do fantastic work. You should go listen.
Also, I have no idea where the Lincoln photo originally came from. It’s literally all over the place. No, I don’t have permission to use it.