A smart essay in The Atlantic by Ian Bogost on the manipulation of a video of Nancy Pelosi and its distribution on Facebook explains the mistake people are making when they criticize Facebook for refusing to pull the video.
The mistake is thinking that Facebook makes a distinction between content that has been manipulated to give a false impression and content that hasn’t been. The mistake is thinking Facebook’s executives care about such things, because they don’t.
They care about content — real, fake or somewhere in between — content that attracts eyeballs and elicits engagement so the company can harvest yet more information about its users.
That information about the hundreds of millions of people who use Facebook — what makes them smile and what makes them frown, what they click on and what they don’t — is Facebook’s product. They sell it to advertisers. It makes no difference to Facebook’s executives if the content that drives engagement is a cartful of damaging lies or a cute photo of a bunny.
Journalists are the ones most likely to get this wrong, Bogost points out, because journalists sell content, so they care about its quality. They want to maintain a reputation for putting out content that is accurate and fair.
Facebook is fine with distributing malicious propaganda produced by Russian agents, as it did during the 2016 presidential campaign, if it helps the company drive engagement and collect the user information that is its lifeblood. Facebook is fine with distributing a video of the U.S. speaker of the House that has been slowed down so her words were slurred to make it appear as if she were drunk or ill, when she was neither.
Only one thing could change Facebook, and that would be its users or its customers abandoning it. One fine day, that will happen, but until then we have to grapple with the world Facebook is helping to create, a world of confusion over what is true and what is false.
This confusion has been embraced and abetted by people in power whose interests it serves. The harder it is to establish an objective truth, the more they are able to push their own lies and distortions. Technology such as Facebook and Twitter that allows statements to be broadcast to millions of people all at once — without a filter or any sort of factual review — gives these lies tremendous force.
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Now, the situation is getting even worse. Video can be sped up or slowed down, as the clip of Nancy Pelosi was. More sophisticated tools allow audio and video manipulation so words can literally be put in someone’s mouth, making it appear they said things they didn’t.
These fakes undermine our belief in our senses. Never mind what we hear secondhand, we can’t even believe what we watch firsthand. These fakes also allow another deception, as people can claim videos have been manipulated, when they haven’t been, to escape responsibility for things they have said.
The way President Trump governs through tweets and statements that contradict reality epitomizes this brave new world. At first — when, for example, he said a big crowd showed up for his inauguration when photographs showed otherwise — it seemed like a joke.
But it turns out the joke was on all of us who believed in objective evidence, because the past two years have shown that millions of people choose to believe, instead, the lies of the president. Recently, he passed 10,000 lies since he took office, according to The Washington Post, which has been keeping track. That’s more than a dozen a day.
Trump has capitalized on the power of his office and social media technology to warp reality to his purposes, but the danger for our country extends beyond his term in office. The erosion of commonly accepted truths cripples the country’s ability to function. If we cannot agree on what happened, we will not agree on what to do about it.
As citizens, we all have to take an active interest in the truth, maintaining skepticism about sources and checking on the reliability and reputation of the reporter. If you’re getting your news from Alex Jones, you’re doing it wrong.
It’s not as easy now as trusting Walter Cronkite, and maybe that’s a good thing. We can’t just swallow what we are fed, information-wise. “If your mother says she loves you, check it out,” the saying goes. That is an old joke meant to make a journalistic point, but it’s less of a joke now. If your mom says she loves you on video, don’t believe her until you hear it in person, especially if she was slurring her words.