Don’t Believe Your (Lyin’) Eyes

Like all right-thinking people, I love Marvin Gaye’s rendition of I Heard it Through the Grapevine — ironic though it may be that a privacy lawyer would enjoy a song about unauthorized release of sensitive personal data.  You’re probably hearing it in your head right now, the bassline kicking in and maybe thinking about times you’ve belted it out in the car when you were alone.  One line always stuck with me, though, as a little strange, and I have always wondered where it came from:

People say believe half of what you see/ Son, and none of what you hear.

Why would I only believe half of what I see?  Isn’t seeing believing?  Don’t we qualify something as true because we “saw it with our own eyes?”  Don’t eyewitnesses get special credence when they testify?  I mean, even Doubting Thomas was going to accept visual proof, and his nickname literally refers to his dubiousness.  So why would (arguably) the greatest Motown hit of all time throw this kind of shade on our ability to trust our very eyes?

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I’m getting there, Violet.

Proof Positive

As it happens, the quote doesn’t come from midcentury pop music, but apparently from one of Edgar Allan Poe’s dark comedies.  The point remains that it flies in the face of what we traditionally associate with visual proof: reliability, guarantee, assurance.  In a way, documents became proof precisely because we could see that something had been written down — after all, a document is merely a visible representation of an agreement between two people.  It isn’t the paper that makes an agreement permanent, it’s that the paper (and, today, the pdf) are immutable proof that we can look at to confirm or reject a claim.  Joyce called it “the ineluctable modality of the visible” — when it comes down to it, humans rely on the visible to anchor experience and reality.

So to prove my point, take a look at this video of Tiger Woods.

Amazing, no?  It would be more amazing if it weren’t fake.  Not really a “deepfake,” the kind of AI-produced, highly convincing video that gets a lot of attention.  No, this is something more rudimentary: just some editing that’s clearly visible if you’re looking.  But who’s really looking?  Were you, before I told you it was a fake video?  Probably not, even though I prefaced the entire first part of this post with commentary about trusting our eyes.

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“You tricked me.”

Granted, this is a video that could be true, because walking away from a putt like that isn’t too far from what we might expect Tiger to do.  And knowing that the video isn’t real doesn’t make it any less funny — in some ways, this parody of Tiger’s behavior is even better than the real thing.  The problem, though, is precisely that we feel this way: when we can no longer believe our eyes, it’s much easier to fall into acceptance of reality as presented, rather than reality as it exists.  In other words, we’ve fallen into a perception trap.

And That’s…That’s Bad, Right?

Given the amount of ink spilled since the emergence of deepfake videos and manipulated imagery, there’s no reason for us to spend any time exploring whether fakes are bad.  They are.  And there’s no question that the potential for political and economic harm that deepfakes present — to say nothing of the dangers to privacy and personal identity — is enough to demand action, and fast.

That, then, is the challenge: determining how to respond to fakes and deception when they imperil not only our trust in systems, platforms, and governments, but when they undermine our very conception of the world.  Trustworthy sense experiences are a foundation of virtually every aspect of our world — even its philosophical underpinnings.  The entire Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment project of modernity more or less depends on us believing that things in the physical realm are, largely, what they seem; it’s behind everything from rationality to existential phenomenology.  If we had to analyze every one of our perceptions at all times or deconstruct reality as it happened, we’d never accomplish anything.

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“Um…I’m sitting right here Jay.”

But there’s a more practical problem to consider: how to avoid entanglement with false media (which is not same as “fake news”), like doctored images or faked recordings.  Ultimately, trust depends on consistency, and so the longer you go without something calling your reliability into question, the more likely people will turn to you for answers.  But without making a serious effort to make that trust-building a component of how you operate online, falling prey to, or promoting, false media will become increasingly likely, and it won’t always been as benign as a walk-away putt at the President’s Cup.

How Do You Build Trust When Everything Is Untrustworthy?

A key problem with all of this is that, witting or unwitting, promoting or using incorrect or falsehoods online will almost certainly be considered willful.  In other words, people will assume that you knew a video was faked or that a report was untrue if you posted it.  Of course, it may be entirely unreasonable to make those kinds of assumptions, but that’s the nature of the Internet: when we move fast, one of the first things we break is critical thinking and thoughtful analysis.

So what to do?  We think that there are a handful principles to bear in mind if you want to cultivate trust online.  Like any other virtues, they require a great deal of patience to develop, but they will be in short supply in the coming years (if past experience is any guide).  As such, the sooner you commit to making them a habit, the easier it will be for you to point to a record of consistency, clarity, and certainty in how you represent yourself online.

Only Rely On Trusted Sources

It isn’t enough to simply find a fact, image, or video online and share it without thinking.  As our Tiger Woods video shows, it’s possible to create false media even for something that seems like it could very well be true and for which there would be no reason to fake.  In fact, Tiger did walk away before sinking the putt, but only when it was a few inches from the cup.  But in some ways, the exaggeration of the truth is worse than a blatant lie: when there’s at least a grain of truth in something, it’s much harder to refute.  Unless you are positive that the source you have identified is verifiable and verified, be wary.

Be A Trusted Source

One way to create a network of reliable sources of information online is to become a node in the network yourself.  Conduct the necessary research before you post anything.  For instance, if you intend to post a report with statistics showing industry trends — perhaps as a way to show that your company’s performance is better than the norm — do the work to determine whether the statistics were accurate and stem from a meaningful study.  We can’t tell you how many times we’ve seen posts about what’s going on in a particular field and, when we run down the citation to its ultimate source it is, you guessed it, an unverified submission on Wikipedia by an anonymous poster. When you post something like that, you undermine your own authority.  So find the right data, determine its quality yourself, and then decide if its worth posting.  Follow the same steps for any media you post, too.

Slow.  Down.

This is the simplest to understand and the hardest to do.  We’re tempted to think that everything now works at a more frenetic pace, and that unless we respond to everything we see online immediately, we’ll never keep up.  This is an illusion driven by the faster pace of communication.  Very few things in life require split-second decisionmaking, and the choice of whether or not to retweet a meme or weigh in with commentary on a troll’s posting are not among them.  Our tendency to react, viscerally, to what we encounter online is a byproduct of systems designed to maximize engagement and interaction, rather than discourse and considered opinions.  As false media proliferate, the risks associated with instantaneous response are only going to grow.  Taking the time to think about you’re doing is, in all things, worthwhile.

Ultimately, the challenges of false media and unreliable perceptions are only solvable with cooperation.  Identifying falsehoods, promoting honesty, embracing thoughtful data-based responses, and excluding bad actors are not just important tasks to set for ourselves, they are tasks that require us to act in concert with one another.  Community is the key — as the old saying goes, even if you can fool some of the people some of the time, you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.  The more people who develop technosocial virtues like reliability and consideration, the more we’ll be protected from our own lying eyes.

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Accountability isn’t always pretty.



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