Article  Human Dignity  Technology

How deepfakes erode trust

What Christians can do when reality is distorted

One of the most powerful and frightening developments in technology as of late is the deepfake. From government leaders grasping how to handle these fake videos to corporations like Facebook seeking to minimize their distribution online through content moderation, deepfakes are beginning to take hold in our society, and not for good. Well-known leaders like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have already fallen prey to these fake videos, and many more are on the horizon. As we enter into the 2020 presidential election cycle, deepfakes will continue to gain an outsized role in the news we see, ultimately affecting what we believe. So, what are we to do about them as a society?

As I have previously written, deepfakes are simply fake videos produced using highly advanced artificial intelligence (AI) to create extremely realistic and potentially dangerous pieces of content. Deepfake technology has become a hot topic in our communities because of how it can misrepresent reality. This technology is not new though. For example, versions of it have been used for years to create celebrity pornography videos. Face swapping can give the illusion that our dreams are reality by taking the face of one person and placing it on another’s body. Pornography has helped propel these technologies into the mainstream and fostered further innovation.

But just as pornography sells us a cheap and distorted version of reality, deepfakes can present the world as some want it to be rather than as it is. The deepfake disillusion can not only harm how we view ourselves and those around us, but can also cause us to question some of the most basic aspects of what is true in our divided world. The aim of a deepfake is to present an alternate reality and sow discord in our society.

Erosion of trust

With the rise of mass information distribution tools like the internet and social media over the last decade, it has become harder to trust what we see and hear. Anyone with low-cost video-doctoring tools and internet access can create and share deepfake videos. Distribution to the masses has ushered in great benefits for society with things like Bibles, books, and education. But for all of these benefits, there has been a weakening of what we see as truth.

In the digital age, deepfakes can weaken our trust in traditional media forms like video and audio. Without confidence in what our eyes see and ears hear, we become naturally fearful and overwhelmed; it’s hard to know what is real. Rene Descartes faced a similar disillusionment with knowledge and trust in his Discourse on Method. After doubting everything he could know from his senses, he concluded that only the internal self could be trusted: “I think therefore I am.” From this, he began to build out to other beliefs about the external world. Christians, however, don’t look inward for truth and reality, even in a deefake age. We must look outside of ourselves to a transcendent reality, one that is not based on popular opinion or the latest doctored videos. Our notion of the real, true, and beautiful comes from God himself through his Word.

Hope for reality

In our culture of deepfakes and the erosion of trust, it can be overwhelming to know what is real. Christ tells us, though, not to be anxious about our life because our anxiety will not add a single hour to our lives (Matt. 6:25,27) This is not just a recognition of our creaturely status, but also a reminder of the power and truth of God. God is the arbiter of truth (John 14:6-7) and knows all things (Psa. 147:5).

A simple way that we can seek to combat the misuse and abuse of deepfake technology is to educate ourselves about it and how it can be used to distort reality in our society. In a culture of instant online reactions, learning to simply pause and reflect before responding to something we see online can minimize the impact of these videos. Often our knee-jerk reaction is to share or comment on things without verifying that they are real. We might not have needed to be as vigilant in the past, but with deepfakes and other technological innovations, what we see can’t be taken at face value.

Some argue for federal legislation to mandate that these fake videos are labeled or to introduce harsh punishments for their creation and distribution. But even with these types of changes, misinformation and deepfakes will likely slip through the safety net. As Danielle Citron, a University of Maryland law professor, said before the House Intelligence Committee in June about deepfakes, “just as schools a decade ago had to teach children not to take everything they find in a Google search or on a Wikipedia page as fact, the same lessons apply today to deepfakes.” Education is the key to combating the spread and potential damage that deepfakes might inflict on society. The more we know about how they can be used, the better we can prepare ourselves and our families to deal with their reality.

As we begin to question everything we see and hear, Christians can hold fast to the truth that it is God who will make sure that truth prevails, no matter how realistic any deepfake becomes. These fake videos will become increasingly more realistic and will be used to spread misinformation in our confused culture. But by preparing well, we can combat the effect of these videos in our communities.

Many will seek to cause disruption and confusion through the proliferation of deepfakes and misinformation during this election season. Let’s seek truth as God’s people and trust that the real truth will be revealed in due time, even if true justice is ultimately served on Judgement Day. Christians can be the ones that calmly wait in hope, being quick to listen and slow to comment (James 1:19).

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