Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is an investigative journalist and writer focusing on the radical Left and Islamic terrorism.
In 1988, a new program was created that would, unwillingly, give its name to an entire field of fake pictures. At the end of the eighties, Adobe Photoshop was not associated with faked photos. But the popularization of the graphics software made it possible for people to produce plausible fake pictures.
And, the world is still here.
Deepfakes, what can be called "Photoshopping for video," has set off an hysterical overreaction by Dems and the media that’s usually reserved for discovering that their flaming pants were made in Moscow.
Rep. Yvette Clarke, a politician no one had previously accused of understanding technology, has proposed the DEEPFAKES Accountability Act. The bill exists for no other reason than to remind people outside her miserable Brooklyn district of her existence and for the Supreme Court to strike it down.
The bill mandates a digital watermark for any "advanced technological false personation record" created "with the intent to distribute such record over the internet".
It comes with a 5-year prison sentence for malicious intent.
Mutale Nkonde, a Clarke advisor on the bill from the Data & Society Research Institute, bizarrely claimed, "Deepfake videos are much more likely to be deployed against women, minorities, people from the LGBT community, poor people."
Deepfakes are more resource intensive than Photoshopping. There’s no reason to think that their creators are going to spend a lot of time and effort targeting poor people. The current victims mostly appear to be female celebrities, who have plenty of financial resources, rather than poor gay minorities.
Clarke’s bill somehow gets even worse when it defines a deepfake as a video depicting “any material activity of a deceased person which such deceased person did not in fact undertake, and the exhibition of which is substantially likely to either further a criminal act or result in improper interference in an official proceeding, public policy debate, or election.” That would mean a Hollywood movie using a digitally enhanced Lincoln released around an election could run afoul of the Democrat’s legislation.
The repeated mentions of “elections” get at the truly troubling part of the deepfakes hysteria.
Clarke claims that her bill would stop “election interference from both foreign and domestic players who could use deep fake technology to alter images and videos of candidates running for office.”
We’ve had technology that can do that for a long time. Again, it’s called Photoshop.
A bill to ban Photoshopping of politicians, or to require watermarks on Photoshopped pictures of Obama or Trump, would rightly meet with outrage and pushback from free speech groups.
Photoshopped pictures and memes have become the most common form of political cartoon.
Before the deepfakes hysteria took off, bad lip-reading videos and other audio overlays served as forms of political satire. Long before the existence of computers, impersonators did the same thing.
Rep. Adam Schiff claimed that deepfakes, “enable malicious actors to foment chaos, division or crisis — and they have the capacity to disrupt entire campaigns including that for the presidency.”
But do they really? Why hasn’t it happened yet?
For the same reason that a Photoshopped picture of a political candidate with a supermodel has yet to stop an election. Faked pictures can be detected. So can deepfakes. Tampering leaves telltale traces.
And the proliferation of Photoshopping has devalued the significance of the damning photo. The proliferation of deepfakes will, in the same way, prevent people from taking videos too seriously.
People outside D.C.
Rep. Schiff demanded that social media companies “protect users” from “viral deepfakes” before the 2020 election. But it isn’t users that need “protecting” from videos. It’s Democrats like Schiff and Pelosi who want to censor the internet to protect themselves from a little ridicule.
When a recent video of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, slowed down to make her words sound slurred, went viral, the media jumped on the non-event with headlines in the New York Times, the Washington Post and CNN. Rep. Schiff immediately announced that there would be an investigation of deepfakes, even though the Pelosi video was not a deepfake, it was a basic audio trick that’s been around forever.
The Pelosi video was not, as the media falsely claimed, a “nightmarish” new threat or part of a wave of deepfakes that will destabilize the 2020 election and test the ability of the internet to cope. YouTube is full of dozens of videos of Trump slowed down with that same drunken slur. And videos of every politician from every nation under the sun. They’re everywhere and nobody takes them seriously.
The media has claimed that the Russian and Chinese governments could introduce hoax videos. But governments had the financial resource and technology to produce them long before deepfakes.
The threat of deepfakes is that, like Photoshopping, anyone can in theory figure out how to do it.
Democrats and the media embraced a fact-free deepfake hysteria because it perpetuates the fake news panic they set off after Trump won with the aim of censoring the internet and tightly controlling speech.
Censorship, not deepfakes, is the real threat.
The last time fake materials were used in an attempt to change the outcome of a presidential election, the perpetrator was CBS News which tried to pass off documents produced in Microsoft Word as being from the Vietnam War in order to prevent President George W. Bush from being reelected.
America weathered that crisis, not because of government legislation or because of the media’s fact checks or censorship by internet platforms, but because internet users quickly spotted the fakery.
The media has spent an entire generation trying to rehabilitate Dan Rather and the original reporting. Hollywood even made a movie starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather. The media regularly consults Rather as an elder statesman on subjects such as fake news. It couldn’t possibly have any less credibility on the subject of bad actors using faked materials to sway the outcome of a presidential election.
No Russians needed.
Should legislation be enacted to prevent the media from faking documents, pictures or videos?
No. The government is the worst possible custodian of gatekeeping election materials. The conflicts of interest are so obvious as to be abusive. Clarke’s bill risks exactly that problem. Internet platforms like Google and Facebook are even more politically biased and untrustworthy. Especially when they’re guided by media fact checks which manage to be even more biased than the lefty dot com monopolies.
The answer is to stop creating tiers of gatekeepers with their own biases and conflicts of interest.
The internet is an open forum. The best way to manage its conflicts is with the marketplace of ideas. And while ideological debates can recede into endless abstractions and namecalling, faked photos and videos can be highlighted and called out. The debate over photoshopping does show a way forward.
And, as with the CBS News scandal, the worst abusers have often been the media.
In 2013, the World Press Photo award winning photo of Muslim parents carrying dead children through the street in Gaza was an impossible shot that turned out to have been tampered with. The photo became the subject of a debate between bloggers, tech experts and the media, which defended it.
Faked photos of various kinds have been a staple of the Israeli-Muslim conflict.
During the 2006 fighting in Lebanon, Reuters photos had to be withdrawn due to Photoshopping. The media has been much less interested in discussing the threat of fake news posed by photos falsely indicting Israel. Or of the Daily Mirror photos that falsely showed British soldiers torturing Iraqis (that’s the scandal which inflicted Piers Morgan on America) which may have inspired Islamic terrorist attacks.
History tells us that if deepfakes become a political threat, the perpetrators will be the media.
And the best antidote to them isn’t government, media or dot com censorship. It’s the piercing light of public scrutiny. Sunlight is the best disinfectant and for it to shine, the shadow of Congress, Google and the International Fact Checking Network can’t be allowed to blot out the light of public debate.
The deepfake that poses a threat to a presidential election won’t come out of an obscure forum. It will be broadcast by the media which will mobilize experts to defend its legitimacy and employ its fact checkers to suppress dissenting material on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. The suppression will be backed by the legislation and threats put forward by Rep. Schiff about suppressing “disinformation”.
We’re Americans and we know that the best defense against fake news, lies, hoaxes and scams is not a government agency, a dot com monopoly or a media monopoly. Those are the ways we get fake news, lies, hoaxes and scams that cannot be challenged because anyone who speaks out is swiftly silenced.
The only way to prevent an actual deepfake election hijacking is by keeping speech on the internet free.