The Brookings Institution warns that “fact checking” will become a lot harder in the 21st century as artificial intelligence becomes better at producing “deep fake news” creating counterfeits so good they are difficult to distinguish from the Real McCoy. “Because the algorithms that generate the fakes continuously learn how to more effectively replicate the appearance of reality, deep fakes cannot easily be detected by other algorithms—indeed, in the case of generative adversarial networks, the algorithm works by getting really good at fooling itself.”
The technology to fake videos, photographs and sound clips is now so good even Hollywood is increasingly using digital actors. Moreover artificial intelligence can weave these fakes into a superficially self-consistent universe of lies creating a false narrative whose fraudulence can only be exposed by painstaking comparison to reality. Naturally this has sent a Washington bruised by the populist uprising scrambling for defenses. “To address the democratization of disinformation, governments, civil society, and the technology sector therefore cannot rely on algorithms alone, but will instead need to invest in new models of social verification, too,” Brookings writes.
The think tank recommends spending billions on research to combat hostile AI. It also suggests government partnerships with social media companies to prevent their use to spread fake news. But this may expose even bigger vulnerabilities.
As fakery improves the task of verifying the narrative becomes progressively harder until begins to rely on the detection of small errors. Just as the only way to be sure the cosmos is not a numerical simulation is to find discrete behavior in theoretically continuous processes, the only way to uncover sophisticated deep fake news is by thorough analysis. This is not easy. As Gizmodo put it one is reduced to searching for “glitches in the system, if you like, that give the game away.” Even that is of little help if populist rebels view the mainstream media as the source of disinformation itself and interpret government partnerships with social media as further confirmation of that. As the Howard Beale in the movie Network put it:
We deal in illusions, man. None of it is true! But you people sit there day after day, night after night, all ages, colors, creeds. We’re all you know. You’re beginning to believe the illusions we’re spinning here. You’re beginning to think that the tube is reality and that your own lives are unreal. You do whatever the tube tells you. You dress like the tube, you eat like the tube, you raise your children like the tube. You even think like the tube. This is mass madness. You maniacs. In God’s name, you people are the real thing. We are the illusion. So turn off your television sets. Turn them off now. Turn them off right now. Turn them off and leave them off. Turn them off right in the middle of this sentence I am speaking to you now. Turn them off!
Nor is it clear the public can muster the intellectual energy and rigor to spend its time hunting for telltale glitches in the news. Detroit public school students recently lost a class-action suit complaining that years of education had left them virtually illiterate. “What to do when a school is infested with vermin, when textbooks are outdated, when students can’t even read?” Well one thing they can do and will do is vote.
Ilya Somin notes that may not be as bad as it sounds. Ignorance has long been the normal condition of the electorate. “Political ignorance in America is deep and widespread,” Somin writes. “A 2006 survey found that only 42 percent can even name the three branches of the federal government: the executive, the legislative, and the judicial.”
Widespread ignorance is not a new phenomenon. Political knowledge has been at roughly the same low level for decades. But it is striking that knowledge levels have risen very little, if at all, despite rising educational attainment and the increased availability of information through the internet, cable news, and other modern technologies.
Any strategy based on ‘splaining to the electorate how smell out fake news is probably doomed by the ignorance of law, history and policy. But such ignorance is quite rational if the voter neither can nor wants to understand the messy world and instead wants the world to understand him. For voters who simply want to make a statement “political ignorance is actually rational for most of the public, including most smart people”. Voters tend to filter media stories (even the fake ones) through the prism of their own experience and biases. Somin writes:
They overvalue anything that supports their preexisting views, and to undervalue or ignore new data that cuts against them, even to the extent of misinterpreting simple data that they could easily interpret correctly in other contexts. Moreover, those most interested in politics are also particularly prone to discuss it only with others who agree with their views, and to follow politics only through like-minded media.
This attitude, which political scientists call rational irrationality, is a very bad way of determining the state of the world but it is a fairly effective way of conveying how the voter wants that world to be. To the extent the public’s preferences are formed by direct experience they remain expert judges of their own needs however poorly informed they are about the rest of the world.
Rational irrationality has one additional benefit. Rational ignorance innoculates the public against disinformation, since none are so immune to propaganda as those with little interest in news. They remain chained — some would say anchored — to quotidian reality.
Ironically it is to journalists and public figures that “deep fake news” poses the greatest danger if only because they consume so much of it. A survey of news stories shows they are as susceptible to hysteria as anyone. One of the unintended benefits of the the current frenzy of incivility is how it demonstrates that even exalted public figures and famous journalists are vulnerable to the seamless lie.
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The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies, by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. This book reveals the forces driving the reinvention of our lives and our economy. As the full impact of digital technologies is felt, we will realize immense bounty but also experience wrenching change. Professions of all kinds – from lawyers to truck drivers – will be forever upended. Companies will be forced to transform or die. Recent economic indicators reflect this shift: fewer people are working, and wages are falling even as productivity and profits soar. Drawing on years of research and up-to-the-minute trends, MIT’s Brynjolfsson and McAfee identify the best strategies for survival and a new path to prosperity.
Open Curtains: What if Privacy were Property not only a Right, by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. This book is a proposal for bringing privacy to the internet by assigning monetary value to data. The image of “open curtains” is meant to suggest a system that allows different degrees of privacy, controlled by the owner. The “curtains” may be open, shut, or open to various degrees depending on which piece of data is being dealt with. Ultimately, what is at stake is governance. We are en route to control of society by and for the few rather than by and for the many, because currently the handful of mega tech companies are siphoning up everyone’s data, for nothing, and selling it. Under the open curtains proposal, government would also pay for its surveillance in the form of tax rebates, providing at least some incentive for government to minimize its intrusions … (from a review by E. Greenwood).
Skin in the Game, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In his new work, Taleb uses the phrase “skin in the game” to introduce a complex worldview that applies to literally all aspects of our lives. “Never trust anyone who doesn’t have skin in the game. Without it, fools and crooks will profit and their mistakes will never come back to haunt them,” he says. In his inimitable style, he pulls on everything from Antaeus the Giant to Hammurabi to Donald Trump to Seneca to the ethics of disagreement to create a jaw-dropping tapestry for understanding our world in a brand new way.
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The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
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Storming the Castle, why government should get small
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Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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