As Dave Miliband noted in a conversation with Sam Harris, most open conflicts today are inside countries rather than between them. And so although the refugee situation is worsening, as detailed in Miliband's Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time, we might also pay more attention to those intra-national disputes. Increasingly, they are information based.
The premise of Nina Schick's book, Deep Fakes: The Coming Infocalypse is that the pitch of ongoing information wars will be imminently heightened by the emergence of deep fakes, which will only become more believable and perhaps less detectable as time goes on. She covers deep fakes in general, Russia's mastery, deep fakes in America, global examples, Covid-19, and a look forward.
Schick is clear to point out that disinformation campaigns in mass media are hardly new, beginning with Stalin's teams who erased people from photographs--until few comrades remained--and leading up through more recent examples, a particularly persuasive one being a seed planted by Russian actors in a prominent Indian newspaper in the 1980s which eventually saw Barack Obama publicly distance himself from his pastor for suggesting that the United States had created AIDS in a lab. What will make deep fakes pernicious--Schick pulls further examples from India, Myanmar, Gabon, and Malaysia--is in part our cultural instinct to believe what we see and hear but also the sheer volume of such media likely to be produced and spread on social platforms. (Of interest to this reader, who lived in Gabon from 1989-1992, was the reporting of the attempted coup in 2019.)
The author is right to note that "In the democratic West, the Infocalypse is well advanced" and does note a series of defenses, from AI research to collaboration between the domains of media, government, and business that might help us reduce the damage to our discourse and public square. The country of Estonia established remarkable defenses against Russian misinformation campaigns, for example.
I wondered whether Schick would mention individual responsibility--that is, the practice of attention and discernment--and she does come through in the book's final paragraph: "Be careful about what information you share. Verify your sources. Correct yourself when you get something wrong. Be wary of your own political biases. Be skeptical, but not cynical."
After all, deception and misdirection have deep biological and evolutionary roots we can't easily ignore. Schick herself even finds certain deep fakes, when used for good, acceptable--the book opens, for instance, with a deep fake where a former American president calls the current a complete dipshit as an example of how deep fakes could be used to make it seem people said things they didn't. I wonder whether fighting deep fakes is therefore addressing a symptom rather than a more difficult problem: the challenge of thinking for oneself.
If you haven't yet learned about deep fakes, Schick's treatment provides an informed study on this serious ongoing issue.
For this interested in hearing the author in conversation, try this podcast conversation.
Finally, I appreciated Schick's inclusion in the resources and endnotes of organizations working on this problem and numerous YouTube links to deep fake examples as well as archived pages like this Russian-created page which organized an anti-Trump rally in Union Square, NYC, four days after the election in 2016, which, according to the Facebook event page, was attended by 16,000 people.