What the not-too-distant future holds for the voting public is going to be unbelievable — and not in a figurative way. I’m talking about actually not being able to tell whether what you’re reading or seeing about a candidate is actually true.
It’s already tough enough sometimes to just find news that’s unbiased and accurate, but we’re moving into a realm where sifting through lousy reporting will be child’s play compared to the active disinformation campaigns on the web.
As we found out recently, Alabama has been a proving ground for some of the first forays into systematic social media disinformation in political campaigns. Over the past few weeks it has been revealed there were at least four fake social media campaigns launched by political groups during last year’s U.S. Senate race between Roy Moore and Doug Jones. These campaigns were designed to trick voters into supporting the Democratic candidate by making it appear supporting Moore would put them in league with Russians and rabid Prohibitionists.
First it was revealed that Reid Hoffman, the billionaire co-founder of LinkedIn, had funded an effort to make it look like Russians were following and supporting Moore’s candidacy. Though Hoffman apologized and claimed no knowledge his money had funded this type of trickery, it essentially mimicked some of the underhanded ways Russians are alleged to have interfered in the 2016 presidential election. In short, it was a test to see if those same gimmicks could be deployed on a smaller, domestic scale.
Then this week The New York Times reported another group had launched something called “Dry Alabama,” which made it appear Moore was being supported by hordes of teetotaling right wingers who wanted to see the state plunged back into Prohibition. This effort was reportedly aimed at getting moderate Republicans to support Jones out of fear that Moore’s supporters would attempt to hijack their brewskis.
According to the NYT article, “Dry Alabama” was funded by two Virginians bent upon Moore’s defeat. Their names were not made public. Both of those scams took about $100,000 to perpetrate, and although Jones won by the relatively slim margin of 22,000 out of 1.3 million votes, those behind the scams claim they had no serious effect on the outcome of the race.
Two other small social media campaigns launched by Tovo Labs and Dialectica aimed to help Jones’ campaign as well, but the Times piece said they were unwilling to speak much about what went on.
And just for the record, Jones has called for an investigation of these media campaigns and claimed no affiliation with them whatsoever.
The bigger question about this matter isn’t really what happened, but what’s going to happen. In a Senate campaign that reportedly cost $51 million, a couple hundred thousand bucks probably didn’t move the needle much, even though there were 4.6 million views of “Dry Alabama’s” Facebook posts, 97,000 engagements and its videos were watched 430,000 times, according to the Times story. But what if the message becomes more sophisticated?
Currently there are pages of laws covering conventional broadcast, print and mailed political advertising, which might be shocking considering how brutal and obviously dishonest much of it is. So if those are the regulated areas, the web is beyond the Wild, Wild West at this point and only getting worse. The question of what falls into political advertising versus free speech on the web is harder and harder to determine.
Most of us would probably agree we don’t want Russians pretending to be Americans online attempting to influence our political races. But how do we feel about a bunch of liberals from Vermont setting up as Alabama conservatives living in our state as a method of influencing the vote? Flip the script and make it conservatives from Montana pretending to be progressives from Fairhope and it’s the same deal.
Social media outlets have already made it pretty clear they are easily used for such purposes, and depending upon them to make necessary changes is a waste of time. Besides, the most insidious disinformation — “deepfake” — will no doubt soon make these early efforts seem quaint by comparison.
Deepfake — the ability to use computer programs to create and upload faked videos of people — is already a scourge for women across the country. As so often happens in our digital world, pornography drives the technology, and deepfake porn creators are using the technology to make videos of women, famous or not, engaged in sexual acts they never actually committed. Right now there’s little these women can do to protect themselves.
The next logical leap is easy to see. Combining deepfake videos with covert social media campaigns, how long will it be before videos are popping up with political candidates making outrageous and damaging statements or engaged in acts that should repulse voters? Considering that these videos are becoming harder and harder to discern, how long will it be before we’re not sure anything we see on the web is actually real? Not long at all.
I’m willing to bet a ham sandwich or something equally delicious this issue will pop up in the 2020 presidential elections first. Videos showing candidates engaged in all sorts of bad behavior will show up and be pushed around the web to be ingested by the gullible. Just think about how many times your great aunt has posted the exciting news that Mars would soon appear larger in the sky than the moon, or the myriad other de-Snopes’d “news” pieces posted on Facebook and its ilk, and you’ll begin to get an idea of what we’re in for.
How easy will it be for someone to fake a video of President Trump saying something even more outrageous than he usually does, or of a candidate for the state legislature advocating for legalization of meth? Your eyes will tell you it’s real, and for those unaware of the advances in political trickery, it might as well be real.
One of most mind-boggling results of this kind of fakery is that it will even allow unscrupulous politicos to deny actual recordings of dumb things they’ve said or done. Soon no one will know what to believe.
I know this may sound far-fetched, but remember the rules put in place on other kinds of political advertising came about as a way to promote transparency and honesty and to fight intentional disinformation. Such campaigns are nothing new, they’re just more sophisticated.
Alabamians have already learned the hard way that things aren’t always what they seem. Expect it to get much worse before it gets better.