Fake News and The Future of Journalism

By on August 28, 2017
Journalism: Microphone with a wire. Symbol breaking news on TV and radio. Live.

In the January issue of Vanity Fair, Nick Bilton wrote a piece exploring emerging technologies and their potential impact on journalism, news, and how we consume it. Bilton states that technological advancements in audio and video have made it possible to create interviews, news broadcasts, and other media from thin air. In essence, anyone who wished to influence public opinion could theoretically take something as accessible as a YouTube clip and manipulate the speaker’s facial expressions and speech to make them say anything.

Face2Face Facial Re-enactment

In a Stanford University paper, facial re-enactment was used to change the facial expressions of a target in real time. Their proprietary Face2Face software allows a user to use a standard webcam to manipulate the facial expression of the target in a previously recorded video. If the source actor arches their eyebrows, then the person in the recorded video will do likewise. Although this technology focuses on facial expressions, a smile or frown placed at a strategic point in a speech or presentation has the power to completely alter the speaker’s original message.


Adobe VoCo

Another tool which could be used to manipulate the news is through Adobe’s up-and-coming software VoCo – or, as Adobe themselves have dubbed it, Photoshop for the voice. By feeding the program a 10 to 20-minute clip of a speech, the user can cut, paste, and even type whole phrases and passages. Then, these edits are spoken in the original voice with next to no decipherable difference between the modified speech and the original.

As you can imagine, the implications of this type of technology are beyond scary. Fact-checking will have little meaning when millions of people around the world both see and hear a prominent figure make statements and interact in a way which is almost indecipherable from the person’s actual speech and facial expressions.

Although many of us take for granted that we can still rely on audio clips of politicians and public figures, both Face2Face and VoCo will make that line between reality and fiction that much more blurry. We will need to double down on journalism and journalistic integrity.

Even the three Cs of interpreting nonverbal communication will fail us. Context, clusters, and congruence won’t matter because the technology will be seamless. With audio technology such as Adobe’s VoCo, phrases could be moved around in Joe Biden’s speech to indicate that he is in favor of Trump’s border wall when, in actuality, Biden never said anything remotely close to it. An actor using Face2Face could theoretically make Biden’s facial expressions match the message.

Lastly, someone looking for their 15 minutes of fame in journalism could take that edited segment of speech and instantly share it with millions through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Trump’s constant harping on “fake news” is beyond dangerous. Because, while there are many journalists and fact-checkers who devote their lives to ensuring Americans are as informed as possible, technology may make it nearly impossible to decipher truth from fiction.