Our Hackable Political Future

Henry J. Farrell and Rick Perlstein at the New York Times: “….A program called Face2Face, developed at Stanford, films one person speaking, then manipulates that person’s image to resemble someone else’s. Throw in voice manipulation technology, and you can literally make anyone say anything — or at least seem to….

Another harrowing potential is the ability to trick the algorithms behind self-driving cars to not recognize traffic signs. Computer scientists have shown that nearly invisible changes to a stop sign can fool algorithms into thinking it says yield instead. Imagine if one of these cars contained a dissident challenging a dictator.

In 2007, Barack Obama’s political opponents insisted that footage existed of Michelle Obama ranting against “whitey.” In the future, they may not have to worry about whether it actually existed. If someone called their bluff, they may simply be able to invent it, using data from stock photos and pre-existing footage.

The next step would be one we are already familiar with: the exploitation of the algorithms used by social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to spread stories virally to those most inclined to show interest in them, even if those stories are fake.

It might be impossible to stop the advance of this kind of technology. But the relevant algorithms here aren’t only the ones that run on computer hardware. They are also the ones that undergird our too easily hacked media system, where garbage acquires the perfumed scent of legitimacy with all too much ease. Editors, journalists and news producers can play a role here — for good or for bad.

Outlets like Fox News spread stories about the murder of Democratic staff members and F.B.I. conspiracies to frame the president. Traditional news organizations, fearing that they might be left behind in the new attention economy, struggle to maximize “engagement with content.”

This gives them a built-in incentive to spread informational viruses that enfeeble the very democratic institutions that allow a free media to thrive. Cable news shows consider it their professional duty to provide “balance” by giving partisan talking heads free rein to spout nonsense — or amplify the nonsense of our current president.

It already feels as though we are living in an alternative science-fiction universe where no one agrees on what it true. Just think how much worse it will be when fake news becomes fake video. Democracy assumes that its citizens share the same reality. We’re about to find out whether democracy can be preserved when this assumption no longer holds….(More)”.