Stop worrying about deepfakes

Walter Scheirer

Photo illustratration by Mark Riecher/Firefly (Original image via Walter Scheirer)

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How are we to know what is real on the internet? When a faked photo of an explosion near the Pentagon briefly spooked Wall Street this spring, it was the first major case of a viral AI-generated image moving the market. The hoax wilted under scrutiny, but to many, it seemed like a harbinger of far worse to come.

And yet, when Walter Scheirer, a computer scientist and media forensics expert at the University of Notre Dame, sent his students to scour the internet for examples of AI-doctored videos, what they brought back surprised him. It was, he says, “memes all the way down.”

So far, the majority of convincing deepfakes seem to be those engineered to generate a knowing chuckle rather than an economic collapse: fake Tom Cruise talking about hand-washing; Nicholas Cage in every movie ever; Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and Barack Obama playing Call of Duty together. The internet, Scheirer concluded, is indeed overflowing with fake content, but the vast majority of it seems aimed at the creation of connection—rather than destruction.

A written version of this conversation appear in Nautilus Magazine. Here's an excerpt: 

Anne Strainchamps: Where do you draw the line between a harmless fake and a dangerously deceptive one?

Walter Scheirer: One thing I came to appreciate more in writing this book is the value of parody and satire in human communication. This is a very old format for making a social critique, often used quite strategically. A really famous case which predates the internet is Jonathan Swift’s (1729) pamphlet, “A Modest Proposal.”

It’s about cannibalism, about eating babies and it’s really disturbing—but Swift isn’t actually talking about cannibalism; what he’s trying to do is make a social critique about the state of the poor in Ireland. If you’re reading critically and deeply, you make the connection right away and you probably find the transgressive, shocking nature of it funny in a dark way—and that’s of course what Swift intended.

But over the years, this pamphlet has been routinely misunderstood. Occasionally there are public readings of it, and even today people lose their minds—like, how in the world could we have people out there advocating for the consumption of babies?—which obviously misses the point. A lot of the internet is just like that. It’s awash in transgressive material that requires you to think a bit to get the message. The problem is, the feed-like nature of social media often causes us to stick to the surface-level message, so then you get these outcries.

AS: What about deepfakes? Content that looks and sounds so real, it’s hard to detect, let alone refute. Is concern about those overblown too?

WS: Yeah, it’s a question that’s been coming up recently. Deepfakes first appeared on the Internet in 2017, so it’s not a particularly new technology at this point. There was huge concern right away that you’d have videos appear in a political context that could change the course of an election or lead to political violence. But none of that has transpired.

You can read the full version over on the Nautilus website.