Opinion

The Covington Controversy Shows We’re Not Prepared for ‘Deep Fake’ Technology

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Posted: Feb 04, 2019 2:00 PM
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The Covington Controversy Shows We’re Not Prepared for ‘Deep Fake’ Technology

Editor's note: This column was authored by Lindsay Marchello. 

Remember the firestorm that surrounded the Covington controversy? People were convinced that a group of white Catholic teenagers harassed and mocked a Native American activist, but the truth turned out to be much more complex. Unfortunately, things are only bound to get worse. As the Covington Affair makes clear, our outrage culture isn’t ready for deep fake technology. But, it doesn’t matter—it’s almost here anyway.

Deep fakes are manipulated videos that can produce fake, hyper-realistic images and audio of people, that are almost impossible to tell apart from reality. It’s what film director Jordan Peele produced in a video of former President Barack Obama in which the former president is seen telling viewers that the villain in Marvel’s Black Panther was right and that President Trump is “a dipshit.” It’s not real, but it certainly looks it. In reality, it’s Peele doing an impression of Obama and manipulating the video to make his words come out of Obama’s mouth. 

Still, deep fakes aren’t perfect. But technology can still fool people who aren’t paying close attention or don’t have much tech savvy. 

The legality of deep fakes is murky. Electronic Frontier Foundation civil liberties director David Greene wrote that existing laws do protect individuals whose image is used in a deep fake, particularly in pornographic videos. But the technology to create these falsified videos is legal, and given enough time and effort just about anyone could create a deep fake and send it out into the digital sea.

The problem lies mainly in the people who aren’t interested in whether the video is real or not. What really matters to these folks is whether the video confirms a preconceived belief they hold, like that Trump is a racist. If it speaks to “their truth,” some will cling to the belief that a video is legitimate—even if it’s a complete fiction. 

Such was the case in the Covington affair, where confirmation bias led to a flurry of articles, tweets, and television segments condemning a group of teenage boys for an offense they didn’t actually commit. We found out when the longer videos were released and context proved everyone wrong. 

Several prominent journalists and political commentators publicly apologized for their knee-jerk reaction to the first short clip, but the damage was already done. Nicholas Sandmann, the Covington boy who had been falsely accused of racism, said he and his family have received death threats, and Covington Catholic High School was temporarily shut down due to threats of violence. 

All of this happened because of a perfect storm of confirmation bias and social media outrage culture. Trump’s has proven to be a controversial president and his signature Make America Great Again hats have become—to some people—symbols of racism and white nationalism. Just the image of a white male teenager wearing a MAGA hat staring down an older Native American man was all the context needed to come to a conclusion. Even when longer videos were released that provided more context, some still stuck to the original story

If this melee could begin because of a short viral video that was totally misleading, what would the outrage look like if a deep fake went viral—even though it’s not even real?

This doesn’t mean we need new laws banning deep fake technology. As Greene argues, the technology can serve an important purpose to express speech—like parody videos or for political commentary. It should stay legal. 

But there needs to be a cultural shift in how we consume media. The Covington affair should serve as a warning for people to view viral videos with a healthy amount of skepticism. Seeing used to be believing, but in the age of social media and deep fakes, that time is coming to an end. 

Lindsay Marchello is an associate editor with The Carolina Journal and a contributor with Young Voices. Follow her on Twitter at @LynnMarch007.