“Fake News is the Winner, and the Winner Takes All” by Roger Payne

Well… talk about things getting worse! On April 7, 2018, I heard a radio broadcast of the NPR show, Radio Lab which is the most terrifying, new development I’ve yet had to process. The segment is entitled: The Future of Fake News. Find it here . I have no words strong enough to express how important I think it is for everyone to hear. The program describes how close computer scientists are to perfecting the tools that will make it possible for anyone to change the words that anyone else says about any subject (e.g.: global warming; voter fraud; war crimes; politicians’ sex-scandals; etc.) in a way that is entirely believable, yet entirely devoid of the truth.

The program examines “progress” in computer science that is making it possible to create both audio and video fake news clips in which you hear a completely believable recording or see a completely convincing video of some leader or celebrity whose voice you know and trust, speaking words and sentences they never said and would never support. And yet, they speak so convincingly and confidently, that even though this technology is still under development, neither you nor I nor anyone else, including the speaker, has any way to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the fake sound-bite or fake video clip is, in fact, the total fraud that it is.

The reason I find this technology so depressing is that all my life I have thought of the truth as the One Hope—the only hope—the only force strong enough to enable us to reverse the problems we create for all life including us—the only thing with enough power and authority to save us from ourselves. But now the computer revolution has made it possible to cast the strongest doubts on even the most solid scientific truths—Natural Laws—those laws of Nature that control everything in the universe, and has done so even though Natural Laws are the most important scientific ideas that those who think our species is exempt from Natural Laws need to understand and learn to accept and trust. Yet… those who have no interest in whether future generations get to experience a future will soon have use of a technology that can cast false doubts on things like global warming, ocean acidification, pollution of land, air and water; sea level rise; the future flooding of coastal cities; the importance of living sustainably; etc.

Several articles and blogs about this subject have come out in recent months but the reason I recommend the Radio-Lab production is because it explains this development in ways we all can understand, and it draws its final conclusions carefully and convincingly. It also interviews some of the computer programmers who are building these systems and you get to hear firsthand how totally asleep they are to the moral implications of their efforts.

Hitherto this technology that I find so unsettling has required many hours of a computer specialist’s time to create even one soundbite a few seconds long. But now anyone with a smartphone will be able to make more realistic fake news clips, and do so in real time. For example, a program already exists that makes fake acoustic clips. It involves the analysis of 20 to 40 minutes of recordings of your victim speaking about pretty much anything. This program then classifies each syllable they said and divides it into small slices of its component frequencies so that when you want to have your victim speak a word in their own voice that they didn’t say, those frequencies and the emotional context in which they were spoken will be chosen by the program to match the statement you wrote for them to say. This program already makes fraudulent recordings that sound authentic.

The programs for making fake videos that will soon be available are no less convincing.

First, you find or create as many head-on shots of your victim speaking as you can. Next, you shoot a video of yourself head-on, saying any words you like. The program will then create a video of your victim saying exactly those same words and imparting to them the same stresses that you used, only the resulting video of the victim will be entirely and convincingly them even though they will be saying your words. The victim will speak in their own voice, with their own personal tonalities, their own subtleties of pronunciation and sound-shading that make up their themness, and yet they will be saying your words, and with the same enthusiasm, seriousness and emphases that you used when you said them. In effect, your victim will have become the ultimate puppet and you the ultimate puppeteer.

Using your smart phone you could make a video of a conversation between, say, our president and some news anchor, in which one (or both) of the talking heads were saying things that neither person had said in the interview. And the whole thing could be made in time to be uploaded to the nightly newsfeed on the same day the real interview happened.

Or suppose that you wanted to take over some country but didn’t want to be guilty of firing the first shot. You could use a news clip of that country’s leader declaring war on your country, add a few never-before-broadcast clips of bomb blasts, followed by a live feed in which you reluctantly announce that your hand has been forced and you are retaliating. Because the major networks would seek two or more authorities to verify your fake news clip before broadcasting it you could also manufacture clips with the voices and images of two or three appropriate authorities, each confirming the authenticity of your news clip.

For me, the most chilling aspect of this technology is that at present it is apparently not possible to expose unequivocally these fake news audios and videos as the frauds they are.

Simon Adler, co-producer of The Future of Fake News, expresses his main worry about this development this way: “This is all occurring within a context of massive news illiteracy, and the consumers seem to be just throwing their hands up—tiring of trying even to figure it out.” He then expresses the hope that today’s teenagers will prove to be; “willing to do the work, maybe out of self-interest, maybe so they aren’t dissed by, you know, the girl in social studies. But that’s our best hope for overcoming it, because everybody else seems to be sick of trying.”

“Because everybody else seems to be sick of trying.” Since the Trump administration came to power that is precisely what I have observed in the attitudes of some of my fellow conservationists. They are sick of trying. It is something I am seeing for the first time in 50 years. The chillingly ignorant reversals that the current administration has unleashed against everything that a generation of well-qualified, well-respected, well-informed conservation biologists worked to secure are being destroyed so effectively by such seamlessly ill-informed Trump appointees that it is hard even to list the extent of the disasters and failures that the current administration has caused and is causing—let alone to make a logical plan for how to reverse them. Which gives me the impression that some conservation biologists are “tiring of trying even to figure it out.”

Furthermore, this dual attack on the future—these two technologies that enable such flawless fakery, are so tightly linked that they employ identical means to destroy our children’s future: they do it by casting-doubt-on, and/or annihilating, scientifically-established truths. To do so, each depends on the generally incomplete understanding of ordinary people like you and me, about computers or principles of biology, or both.

This new technology sounds the death knell of anyone being able to believe anything that is spoken or videoed. It is the ultimate achievement in creating an environment in which entirely convincing but totally fraudulent governance can grab the reins.

It is the end of truth.  And if the Bible is right; that “the truth shall set you free,” then this new technology also spells the end of freedom. This is how to make our nation doubt everything it once stood for and that made it great, including its former confidence in what are, in fact, the inalienable truths that we held to be self-evident.

Roger Payne