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Fighting a Fixture of the Next Generation of Fake News — Phony Videos on Steroids

10 Oct 2018

H5 Strategies Founder and CEO Marshall Comins published an editorial this morning with Romania’s most popular daily newspaper and online platform, Adevarul, on the future threat presented by fake news videos.

Interested readers can read the Romanian version at this link, and the English version below.

Fighting a Fixture of the Next Generation of Fake News — Phony Videos on Steroids

Marshall Comins

At a time when experts have been unable to come up with ways to stop the current genre of fake news, pundits are predicting a new video version on steroids.

The bedrock of the current genre is lies in text, of course. But it also includes altered photos and faked video.

Video makes a deeper and more lasting impression than text or photos. That’s because viewers can see people actually talking or doing things rather than relying on descriptions — from text — or a picture of a moment in time — as captured in a still photo.

Like everything that floods the Internet these days, videos can be faked, too. The good news is that so far the forgeries have been crude and fairly easy for experts to spot.

But that’s changing. Experts are warning that the technology for faking videos is developing so rapidly that forgeries will soon be difficult to tell from the real thing.

Let’s consider an example of what could happen when the technology reaches near-perfection. India is a country with long-simmering tensions between Hindus and Muslims that have often spilled into violence. In recent years, fake news accusing one side or the other of various transgressions has created situations explosive enough to stoke violence.

Now imagine someone who wanted to see violence break out between the sides creating a fake video of a public figure saying incendiary things about the other religion or its followers.

The video shows the public figure spitting out his words in anger and pumping his fist — depictions sure to fire up his followers against the other side.

Except the video is fake. The person who created it has taken samples of the public figure speaking and acting normally to make a fake video that no one but experts can tell is a forgery.

To most people, video doesn’t lie. They consider such footage a recording — a chronicling, of something actually happening — not something that’s being fabricated.

Let’s take another example. There has been a spate of news reports in recent years about fake videos of celebrities doing scandalous or embarrassing things. A number of the fakes have purported to show celebrities having sex with porn stars or others — when in fact, they never engaged in this kind of unseemly behavior.

Experts have been able to spot these videos as fakes aimed at damaging a celebrity’s reputation — conclusions that journalists have then reported.

Technology that makes such videos much more difficult to detect is likely to lead to a lot more of them, and to convince a lot more people that what they see is real.

If someone can do this to a celebrity, why not a lover they want to take revenge on for leaving them? The message is that near-technically-perfect fake videos can damage ordinary folks as well as notables.

There’s actually a website that people can go to right now to learn how to put someone else’s face on the body of a person in an existing video. The software that’s featured on the site allows you to put the face of a person you don’t like onto the body of someone committing a crime, for example. Because the products that this site helps generate have such potential to harm, I’m not going to mention the site’s name or Internet address.

I don’t know how good the forgeries based on this technology are. Even if they’re not perfect, however, you can see where the technology is heading — the creation of forgeries that are so good that they are nearly impossible to distinguish from the real thing. 

My strategic communications company, Bucharest-based H5 Strategies, decided a few months ago that fake news has become such a threat to democracy that we would open anti-fake-news centers in Central and Eastern Europe. The first ones will be in Bucharest, in Chisinau, Moldova, and Tirana, Albania.

We won’t be running the centers — foundations and other organizations will. Our role will be to draw on our staff’s backgrounds as journalists and strategic communications experts to offer suggestions about innovative ways to counter fake news.

One thing that’s apparent to journalists, strategic communicators like us, government officials, and rank-and-file news consumers is that the fake-news threat has evolved quickly and continues to transform, making it more difficult to counter.

But we have no choice than to fight it. Democracy has always been predicated on voters using truthful information to make the best choices about how they want to be governed and live. Until the Internet weaponized fake news, people in most democracies could rely on most of the news they obtained being truthful. No more.

We will do our part to help combat the global fake-news scourge even as it evolves into threats like fake videos that are so well done they are difficult to distinguish from the real thing.   

The hope is that the anti-fake-news centers’ staffs will develop such a deep well of expertise that they will be able to apply it not just to countering the current threat but the next-generation threat as well.

Marshall Comins is the founder and CEO of H5 Strategies.


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