These two scenes are at the heart of the Washington Post’s debunking of the claims of Jaime Phillips, a woman who appears to have been working with Project Veritas using secretly recorded footage to try to swindle the news organization’s reporters into publishing a fake story about Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore’s sexual harassment and assault history. But what do we do when we get to the point when we can’t tell if this sort of video is real?
The story-about-the-non-story rocked journalism Twitter yesterday, as the Post shared nearly 10 minutes of footage of reporter Stephanie McCrummen presenting Phillips with a printout of a GoFundMe campaign to help her work against the mainstream media and other reporting that dismantled her claims. The article with the video noted that “when McCrummen put her purse near Phillips’ purse to block a possible camera, Phillips moved hers.” After James O’Keefe — the founder of Project Veritas, which has been criticized for using deceptive tactics and recorded interactions to embarrass its targets — tweeted an edited video of an encounter between himself and Post reporter Aaron Davis trying to ask him about Phillips, the Post published a non-segmented video of the meeting.
Filming a confrontation has been a key way to hold people accountable in the most straightforward way possible: audio, video, all right there and sometimes even live. That’s probably why the Post made sure to note in the third paragraph of the article that their videographer filmed the entire encounter. And it’s also why O’Keefe tweeted the edited video (cutting out the Post reporter’s question, highlighting O’Keefe’s questioning as the reporter walked to his car and poking fun at him for trying to unlock a Mustang instead of his sedan) and spent much of Monday sharing undercover videos of other Washington Post reporters talking about the traffic Trump-related news drives to their site. Heck, it’s even partially why police officers across the country now have body cameras.
However, researchers have already shown that highly realistic doctored video spreading false content is not that far off. This summer, the University of Washington announced that its researchers had developed algorithms able to turn audio clips into a life-like lip-synced video of someone speaking those words — say, Barack Obama. (Days before, many were fooled by a photo of President Trump intently leaning in for a discussion with Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit, even though it never actually happened.)
In their hefty report on information disorder, First Draft’s Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan pointed out the industry’s focus on text-based misinformation rather than the opportunity of spreading it through videos or pictures:
Visuals can be far more persuasive than other forms of communication, which can make them much more powerful vehicles for mis- and dis-information. In addition, over the past couple of months, we’ve been confronted with the technological implications whereby relatively limited audio or video clips of someone can act as very powerful ‘training data’ allowing for the creation of completely fabricated audio or video files, making it appear that someone has said something that they have not…
As we continue to undertake research and work collaboratively on solutions, our biggest challenge will be the speed at which technology is refining the creation of fabricated video and audio…Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook’s Developer Conference, F8, in April 2017, demonstrated new Augmented Reality technology that allows users to seamlessly ‘add’ features and filters to their images or videos. Zuckerberg used the example of adding more steam to the image of his morning coffee. While this is a harmless example, the darker versions of augmented reality are easy to imagine.
Keeping in mind that visuals tend to go viral more often than text, this is an area of increasing concern. Solid journalism is important, but so is figuring out other ways to show your work — and your confrontations — beyond video that could be manipulated not too far in the future. The Post’s David Fahrenthold showed his work through tweeted pictures of his handwritten research on a legal pad, and he won a Pulitzer. How can journalists fight fake news without relying on video or audio recording to tell the truth?
Then again, seeing isn’t always believing.
Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Loowgren.