Taylor Swift, the pope, Putin: in the age of AI and deepfakes, who do you trust? – The Guardian

Rumours and gossip changed the course of French history. Now they’re weapons for ‘newsfluencers’ and dictators in the 21st-century information wars
If you wanted to find out what was happening in the world in Paris in 1750, you went to l’arbre de Cracovie, or “the Kraków tree”. This chestnut tree was called that not because it had any particular connection to the Polish city, but because the slang term at the time for “fake news” was craques, and the space beneath its branches was full of it.
And yet the tree didn’t just draw gossips who would claim to know what was really going on in the corridors of power because they had eavesdropped on a conversation or glimpsed a private letter. It also drew the attention of the government, which wanted to know what Parisians were thinking, as well as foreign powers, who sent agents there to gather information – or to plant it.
Robert Darnton, a Harvard historian, traced the flow of this information in an address given to the American Historical Association at the turn of the millennium. With newspapers highly controlled by the ancien régime, gossip spread at the foot of the tree took on various forms as “public noise” and bar songs, was discussed collectively in salons, and printed in satirical and defamatory pamphlets called libelles. Eventually, Darnton argues, these anecdotes and stories helped to bring down the French monarchy itself.
The end result of that was, of course, the foundational contribution that the French revolution made to democracy. But now here we are, those of us living in liberal democratic states that depend on an educated, engaged population for their continued existence, facing a 21st-century arbre de Cracovie.
Except this one is incalculably more ubiquitous, more instantaneous, more overwhelming, and more powerful. And as voters around the world proceed through the biggest election year in history, I find myself increasingly wondering: can democracy survive social media?
David Colon, a French historian who specialises in propaganda and mass manipulation, says that while propaganda itself is nothing new, what is new is the viral speed and global scale that social media has enabled, along with plummeting trust in “filters” (ie the institutional media). There is a trifecta of things at work that are all probably going to get worse, and that all fuel each other.
First, and probably unsurprisingly to most, fake news. The recent rise of AI has made the future of faked clips of politicians saying things they actually did not say (or of course, of the pope wearing things he did not wear) and deepfaked pornography targeting celebrities such as Taylor Swift, tangible. But it’s going to be worse than that. The French game studio Drama recently released gameplay footage from its upcoming first-person shooter Unrecord that looks like actual bodycam footage. Go ahead, judge for yourself.
Arriving at a coherent, shared understanding of conflicts that are actually happening is difficult enough. What will happen in an era – just around the corner – when, during global crises, people are bombarded with generated footage of attacks that have not happened and pushed to react in real time? Conspiracy theories will run even more rampant; like those that have sprung up in the wake of Alexei Navalny’s suspicious death, claiming that he was assassinated by western intelligence agencies or even that he was a Kremlin plant. Some will believe everything, including things that are false; others will disbelieve everything, including things that are true.
Second, the rise of “newsfluencers” fracturing our once-shared informational reality even further – sometimes without us even realising it. For example, how many of the nearly 500,000 TikTok followers of Breakthrough News are aware that it’s one of half a dozen social media accounts connected to an American billionaire, Neville Roy Singham, whose alleged promotion of the interests of both the Kremlin and Beijing was painstakingly detailed in deep dives published by the New York Times and the Daily Beast.
It’s not just a TikTok-specific problem: Russell Brand’s YouTube channel reaches 6.8 million subscribers with his telltale “just askin’ questions, man” merging of information with spurious claims that leave viewers with a growing suspicion that it’s simultaneously impossible to know for sure, but that there is also a nebulous truth that “they” are hiding from you. (Yes, nearly 7 million people inexplicably consider Russell Brand a good source of geopolitical analysis.)
These trends are destructive enough on their own, but as Peter Pomerantsev details in his 2019 book This Is Not Propaganda, the third arrow aimed at the heart of democracy is that authoritarian regimes actively exploit and propel both in an omnipresent information war. It often involves manipulation along the fine line of things that sound faintly plausible, but aren’t, such as the recent Kremlin-pushed disinformation alleging that French “mercenaries” had been killed in Ukraine. In fact, last week, France’s digital counterintelligence agency, Viginum, identified a vast Russian propaganda network named Portal Kombat, which has been specifically targeting western Europe.
For state actors such as Russia, China and Iran, the point of these operations is less about convincing western publics to believe anything in particular than it is about dismantling trust in everything.
“If you weaken truth and create false equivalencies, you weaken, in the long term, the ability of citizens to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not, and democracy becomes impossible by design,” says Colon. With the end result, of course, that in this void of generalised loss of confidence, disbelief and not knowing who to trust, more and more people would turn to the strong hand of authoritarianism.
So here we are, facing a world of gargantuan complexity, cognitively trained for on-demand immediacy, expected to have, and share, opinions on everything, and splintered into informational silos because the filter – at a time when it is needed most – can no longer operate effectively. Legacy media is far from perfect, but when legacy platforms get something wrong, they issue retractions. Does anyone expect the same from Russell Brand?
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We are not even in the middle of this murky forest yet; what are we to do?
The authoritarian states have a solution: tight control over isolated internet spaces. But for liberal democracies, China’s model would amount to “destroying the village in order to save the village”. And besides, western publics are too attuned to censorship; any approach that relies on control is likely to backfire.
What about leaving social media entirely? Frustration with X (formerly known as Twitter) drove me to leave months ago, but when I mentioned this to David Colon he paused, looked straight at me and said: “You shouldn’t have.” On a personal quality-of-life level, I can’t say I regret the decision, but perhaps it was a selfish one. Colon’s point was that by leaving, I had abandoned a broader social responsibility not to let disinformation win.
In fact, some people, such as Elica Le Bon, a British-born, US-trained Iranian lawyer, have made the opposite decision. You could consider them to be “counterfluencers”, because they have grown social media presences dedicated to countering state-backed disinformation campaigns. In Le Bon’s case, she combats what she describes as a relentless torrent of disinformation and propaganda about the Middle East originating in various ways from Iran.
When I asked her about drawing from her own experience combating specific disinformation to find broad ways to inoculate people against it, she hit on a reason why institutional media is lagging behind. For many, its “facelessness” actually makes it less trustworthy. “See,” she said over video chat, “the fact that I can see your face right now and know who you are adds credibility to what you’re saying.”
Colon also focused on bolstering trust in news media as a solution, bringing up specifically the Journalism Trust Initiative, which, like organic labelling, would identify news organisations that adhere to a set of journalistic practices. That might be useful for those who want to trust, and just aren’t sure of who to trust – but what about those whose generalised scepticism already runs too deep?
I have to admit, transparency and labelling seem insufficient given what we already face, and what’s coming. To paraphrase the Italian thinker Antonio Gramsci, there are many reasons to give in to the pessimism of the intellect. In order not to, we will need an enormous effort to cultivate the optimism of the will.
Alexander Hurst is a Guardian Europe columnist
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