Remember that time when Barack Obama sat in the Oval Office, looked directly into the camera, and told the nation, “President Trump is a total and complete dipshit”?
Yeah? Funny you should, since it never happened. Not really. What did: In 2018 director and comedian Jordan Peele, for a PSA demonstrating a potentially dangerous new technology, provided the voice for a computer-generated version of the former president—a deepfake based on hundreds of hours of footage. Just the sort of thing the Center for an Informed Public is here to address.
Launched at the University of Washington late last year, CIP aims to help us detect inaccuracies and distortions in everything from deepfakes to conspiracy theories to that meme your uncle posted last week. “We want [the public] to be aware of the ways that misinformation is created and spread and the ways we can combat it,” says Jevin West, the center’s director.
A joint venture of UW and Washington State University, CIP taps the expertise of a dozen professors and researchers, including software engineers, a former journalist, and a biologist. They’ll share their findings via talks, white papers, and workshops. West also outlines some of the team’s truth-seeking techniques at whichfaceisreal.com, a site dedicated to exposing manipulated photos and computer-generated images of nonexistent people. (Example: “Be on the lookout for asymmetries in facial hair.”)
Protecting us from digital con jobs won’t be easy. A 2018 Pew Research Center poll found that Americans now struggle to even understand what a fact is. Only 26 percent of the adult participants could correctly determine all of the fact-based sentences in a set of statements.
Cable news talking heads bear much of the blame, according to West. “You get this extreme, hyperpartisan perspective distortion,” he says. And deepfake visuals—novel and flashy and seemingly dropped on us from our dystopian future—garner a lot of attention. But a bigger, more insidious culprit lies at our thumbtips.
Kate Starbird, one of CIP’s principal investigators, studies social media sites and their role in spreading falsehoods. The types of disinformation campaigns that fueled Russia’s attack on the 2016 U.S. presidential election, says Starbird, are only becoming more and more sophisticated in targeting audiences based on their social and political identities. That includes things like your uncle’s arguably dipshit meme.
And it’s here where you can join Starbird, join West, join Jordan freaking Peele in the fight against fakery. It requires so little. You don’t even have to lift a thumb.
“If it’s triggering your outrage, especially your political outrage, slow down,” Starbird says. “Don’t share it.”
Want to know which photo is a fake? Answer: PHOTO B