Fakes: Not an Internet Thing, a Human Thing

Deepfakes, bots, fake worlds, fake accounts—people crave fiction, even amidst fact

9 min read

Willie Jones covers transportation for IEEE Spectrum, and the history of technology for The Institute.

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Every day, as the Internet becomes more indispensable to modern life, the drawbacks of deep engagement with the virtual realm capture as much attention as the wide-ranging benefits. On the Internet, of course, anyone can in all too many forums pretty much say anything—regardless of whether the facts are on their side or not.

University of Notre Dame computer science professor WalterJ. Scheirer has come at this core problem of online speech, including images, from an unconventional direction. Scheirer doesn’t blame the Internet. Instead, he’s fished back to the tools and techniques for make-believe that have been a standard part of human culture since the dawn of civilization. What separates the person making cave paintings, carving marble statues, or making stained-glass windows for Gothic cathedrals from a content creator on Tik Tok or YouTube, says Scheirer, is the reach and immediacy of their respective modes of communication.

The Internet as a force multiplier of our preexisting tendency toward the fictional, and even the fanciful, is the essential thesis of Scheirer’s new book, A History of Fake Things on the Internet (Stanford Univ. Press). IEEE Spectrum recently spoke with Professor Scheirer about what he discovered in his research for the book and what he sees as the main takeaways.

Walter J. Scheirer on...

IEEE Spectrum: One thread running through the book was that there’s nothing new under the Sun, and that fakery has just reached the point where, because of technology, it requires less skill and effort than in times past. Would you agree?

portrait of a man in a blue shirt smiling at the camera against a gray backgroundNotre Dame computer scientist Walter J. Scheirer says don’t blame the Internet for what human nature also does on its own.University of Notre Dame

Walter J. Scheirer: Yeah, I would agree with that conclusion. I feel like there’s a human need to tell stories and we’ve been building new technologies to do that over time. You see this progression in the development of new communications mediums, and many of these things are very artistic in nature. That’s really key. I think you get this tension though, with the Internet, where there were competing visions of what it was supposed to be. The one which I think causes the most misunderstandings is the popular understanding of this idea from the 1990s of the Internet as an information superhighway. Since the dotcom era, you had this emerging global infrastructure. It comes out of the military world, and it’s being co-opted by large corporations who move in and say, ‘This is going to be a space for commerce. We’re going to exchange factual information on this this network. We’re going to invite the whole globe to participate in it. However, we have this expectation that this will function more or less like a database. It’ll be useful for education and other things, but we basically want to monetize this ecosystem.’

But that’s in stark contrast to what we ended up with, which is actually the original vision for this type of information network going back to the writing of Marshall McLuhan [the Canadian communication theorist who coined the phrase “The medium is the message”] in the 1960s. McLuhan was envisioning the Internet we have today. He foresaw that we’d get the entire globe on the same network exchanging information and that information would basically be projections of their imagination—the collective imagination of humanity. So again, he knew that people love to tell stories, and that it’s important to filter a lot of world events through fiction because it helps us understand things in a better way. And he was trying to facilitate that by envisioning a global information network which would make [those person-to-person exchanges] faster and more expansive.

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“We use media to tell... stories. But in the past, the medium was much slower than the Internet.”
—Walter J. Scheirer, Notre Dame

You quote Portuguese political scientist Bruno Maçães, who wrote in his recent book History Has Begun that, “Technology has become the new holy writ, the inexhaustible source of the stories by which we order our lives.” In medieval Europe­—where most people were illiterate—the mass media of the day was the stained-glass windows of cathedrals. Bible stories were illustrated in glass, making artisans something like theologians or members of the clergy. How does that dovetail with your explanation of how myth cycles have taken root on the Internet?

Scheirer: I think that connection is absolutely important to understanding how we use media to tell these stories. But in the past, the medium was much slower than the Internet. And so, you find I talk a lot in the book about Greek pottery, which serves a similar function. There were stories that were commonly circulating in the Mediterranean. People would be familiar with the characters because they appeared on the pottery they used every day, but things changed from location to location over the years. And you see the same exact thing with stained glass windows. You have a set of stock characters­­­—­saints and figures from the Bible—and they’re being reworked over the years in different contexts. You can go to many different churches and see the same base story, but with all these different reworkings. The Internet today works much like that, which is really fascinating. It’s really this information ecosystem that you can participate in more directly.

Another issue with the older mediums was that you had to be an artist to tell the story. But anybody could receive the story. Now with the Internet, using creative tools, you can do what only artists were doing in years past. Yet, it’s still the same the same basic mechanism. That’s what I argue in the book.

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You say that the Internet flooded the intellectual commons “with agendas that were not constrained by a conventional understanding of reality.” Has there ever been “a conventional understanding of reality” that was rock-solid, objective truth?

Scheirer: I think what I was trying to say in that passage is that there’s this thinking, especially in communities obsessed with rational thinking, like scientists and businesspeople: They believe that there is something at least resembling an objective truth. And that’s usually a narrative that is conforming to whatever they’re trying to do. But the Internet presents you with so many different alternatives. It overturns that quite quickly. Does that make sense? If you go down to, say, Wall Street, you’ll have a bunch of serious people who will tell you “The markets work this way.” You know, that’s the way it is. Of course, there’s more to life than just those markets.

Yeah. They will give you their word that ‘This is how the game goes.’ Yet, when 2008 happens, they’ll wring their hands and say nothing’s guaranteed.

Scheirer: Exactly. But that goes back to this vision of the Internet as being an information superhighway, where there’s just this one set of facts that’ll exist in this database, and the world will be able to access it, and that’s the way it is. And of course, that’s not actually the way it is.

“A lot of what’s perceived to be misinformation is really parody and satire. The out-group just hasn’t figured it out.“
—Walter J. Scheirer, Notre Dame

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Part of the social proof of one’s worthiness as a member of the hacker community used to be one’s capacity to separate the usable material from the bits that could and should be discarded. Where was the disconnect that left so many of today’s netizens who comment on social media lacking this essential sorting capbility?

Scheirer: This is really a fascinating story, I think. During the golden age of the hacker subculture—from the early 1980s to the early 2000s—there really was a small, coherent community of people who understood technology at a very deep level. They wanted to bring in more people into this community, but they were a little bit wary of outsiders. You can’t trust everybody, you know? Some of these people were breaking into computer systems illegally, though others were exploring the technology in legal, yet unconventional ways. And so, they developed this interesting form of storytelling to sift through the different populations that were joining this nascent Internet. You had a lot of people that were going to misunderstand it, and that was very funny to the in-group. This is a form of parody or satire and that’s kind of what you see on the Internet today but amplified. There are so many more people doing the same thing and you see it, also, in political contexts. That’s where I think you run into a lot of trouble when you assume something is misinformation. A lot of what’s perceived to be misinformation is really parody and satire. The out-group just hasn’t figured it out.

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You say that hacker Chris Goggans (aka Erik Bloodaxe) “had learned an interesting lesson: If fake content could be crafted to look plausible enough to people who were not expert technologists, then groups outside of the hacker underground would pay attention if the message was sensational enough.” Is this, in your view, the early-days analog to conspiracies like QAnon?

Scheirer: Absolutely. Now, of course, Goggins, he’s not he’s not political. I mean, he [conceived and acted on this theory] for the purpose of promoting his particular subculture. But that playbook becomes really important later on when you think about the success of groups like QAnon. It’s like, the more extreme your message—as long as it has the veneer of being plausible—all of a sudden there’s tremendous attention put on it, especially by the mainstream media. That amplifies the message.

“A lot of different groups within the economy noticed How useful Photoshop would be in many different contexts So, we’ve already been socialized to this idea of digitally manipulated photographs and videos for a very long time.”
—Walter J. Scheirer, Notre Dame

You pose the question “Who Put the News Media in Charge of the Truth?” As mainstream news outlets increasingly became properties of corporations with financial interests their shareholders want protected at all costs, it became more plausible that what had once been trusted sources of information had been coopted by the business class. In this era of so-called “fake news” and “alternative facts,” are there still three sides to every story, or has truth been reduced to a quaint anachronism?

Scheirer: This is a really important question when you think about the veracity of the news. My sort of beef with a lot of so-called papers of record and other major news outlets is that they’re portraying themselves as the last firewall of democracy. But if you look at them historically, they’ve had a problem with fake news from the very beginning. The book recounts one really sensational case.

You mean the “Dateline” story alleging a U.S. government conspiracy to conceal evidence of alien life?

Scheirer: Yes. But, you know, there’s more of that kind of thing out there. At the end of that chapter, I pointed out a few other exploits where hackers were able to do more, like convincing the Los Angeles Times that it was possible to [hack networks and] move satellites in orbit, which was not technically possible. But again, it was sort of sensational and it sounded good enough. So, I guess the thinking in the newsroom was Why fact check it? Let’s just rush it out to press.

You note that Edward Delp was Thom Knoll’s academic advisor at the University of Michigan before Knoll dropped out of the doctoral program in electrical and computer engineering to market the invention that eventually became known as Photoshop. You cite Delp as having said, “We worry about fake political stuff spreading on social media now, but the fashion and advertising industries were using Photoshop to change photos from day one.” Was what we’re seeing today in terms of fake images on the Internet already in the cards from the time they were dealt?

Scheirer: Absolutely. I think a lot of different groups within the economy noticed How useful Photoshop would be in many different contexts So, we’ve already been socialized to this idea of digitally manipulated photographs and videos for a very long time. There was some writing about its use in the fashion industry in terms of idealized body image. People were asking, “Is this a healthy thing?” But I feel like that hasn’t resonated as much as the political side of manipulated content. Still, it’s the same issue when you think about it.

“We love to tell stories. This is an essential aspect of our humanity. But I ask, Are you going to do it in a virtuous way? I think that’s the key thing.”
—Walter J. Scheirer, Notre Dame

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You wrote that “A strategy to bombard the American public with clearly fake visual disinformation was taken up by the Trump campaign in 2016.” Is it the multiplicative nature of the Internet that’s the cause of global panic over the loss of objective truth?

Scheirer: Yes, that’s interesting question. I think the Trump people understood what kind of content is popular on the Internet and were able to create really effective content. And it wasn’t fake images or manipulated images that appear plausible, as in the “perfect fake” revising history. It was more these outrageous meme-style images, which is what most of the manipulated content is online. Much of that is perfectly innocent. Some of it, of course is political, but a lot of that is parody or satire. The Trump people asked themselves, Can we create content that’s going to promote our candidate that looks like the parody and satire stuff, but is actually spreading a more serious political message? That’s why I think they were so successful.

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You wrote: “We know from photography that accuracy is not the question, it is instead how we absorb the content in our decision-making and culture-generation practices.” I’m familiar with a coinage that says, “There’s power in not knowing what tomorrow will bring, but knowing what you will bring to tomorrow.” I took what you were saying in that passage to mean, essentially, that there’s power in not knowing what the Internet will bring, but knowing what you will bring to the Internet.

Scheirer: Oh, yeah. That’s a really interesting quote. I Feel a lot of my work in technology ethics is in this flavor of Are you a virtuous person? or What are you going to do with these toolson the Internet? The book obviously is very much in support of creative activities. We want to increase participation in the arts. We love to tell stories. This is an essential aspect of our humanity. But I ask, Are you going to do it in a virtuous way? I think that’s the key thing. So, I think the book makes a good point, which is that these are long-standing issues and so we must be mindful of where we’re pointing the finger in terms of what is to blame [for the unsavory elements of what happens online]. Is it the technology that’s at fault, or is it really the people misusing the technology?

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