The big mood these days is waiting on the tech apocalypse. All it takes is a video of a humanoid robot displaying the motor skills of a 6-year-old to have people preparing for Skynet to kill us all. The same goes, perhaps even more so, for fears of “deepfakes”: software getting good enough that anybody with an iPhone can doctor fake videos that can spark a riot. Seeing computers convincingly putting words in the mouths of presidents is scary, and once a Macedonian teenager can do it in minutes it’s game over, so the thinking goes.
But if the last few years — and yes, the particularly hellish last few days — have taught us anything, it’s that fake video isn’t going to destroy our ability to see the truth. It’s the real video we need to worry about, and our true problem is that we can all see the very same thing and disagree on what it was.
The footage of that confrontation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial — the early clips that kicked off a national freakout, followed by the longer clips that escalated the national freakout, and then a new round of clips that escalated things once more — was all real. It was accurate and authentic and let you see exactly what happened, no high-tech doctoring or even old-school misleading editing. And we can’t agree on almost anything that happened, and we never will.
This isn’t a unique situation. The Syrian civil war is the most extensively documented conflict in history, thanks in large part to the noble but completely incorrect belief among opposition activists that capturing footage of war crimes would make them impossible to spin or deny. After almost eight years and millions of hours of footage of bombed-out hospitals and urban carnage, it’s pretty clear that spin and denial have emerged victorious.
Here in the US, putting body cameras on police officers and cellphone cameras in the hands of everyone else hasn’t done much to alter the way police brutality is understood by juries or prosecutors. And even in scenarios with infinitely lower stakes and vastly better footage, we can all see the same thing while seeing completely different things: Consider how useless video replay can be in sports, and how much more furious people are with the officiating in the age of the instant review.
The reason is pretty simple: Whether it’s a defense lawyer, a government propagandist, or a raging partisan, arguments aren’t really won by evidence, and never have been. And if anything, throwing video into the mix can make the picture even murkier, giving everyone the opportunity to find the split second that makes their case; the new angle that Raises New Questions. There might be nothing as misleading as an extremely genuine fragment of extremely genuine video.
Even an incident in one of the most intensely watched and recorded places on Earth can get tricky if the partisans are committed enough. Did CNN’s White House correspondent deliver a swift karate chop to the arm of a presidential aide attempting to stop his questioning of Donald Trump, as the MAGA crowd — and the White House itself — claimed? Somehow, the argument literally descended into a discussion of frame rates and video-to-GIF conversion methods.
Obviously throwing computer-generated fake video into this mix won’t be good news for our ability to identify truth and fight bullshit. But there are plenty of signs that people committed to winning big, consequential arguments, whether they’re a shameless Kremlin propagandist or merely someone who loves to fight on the internet, will stick to using the real stuff to back up their spin. Consider how rarely photoshopped images have actually succeeded in enduring mass manipulation, even though anybody can make one in minutes. You don’t need to photoshop an image of a recently bombed hospital to make it look like a terrorist training camp — just insist, repeatedly, that terrorists unfortunately hide inside hospitals, and your partisans will do the rest.
The place where fake video could perform well is the same place where fake news websites also flourish: Facebook. For the same reasons that a hoax article saying the Pope endorsed Trump managed to thrive in the News Feed, so too could fake videos that play to Facebook’s most gullible users.
That stuff matters, and it helps corrode the brains of people who are already open to extreme disinformation thanks to the barrage of spin that fills their media diets. But it’s nowhere near as influential as the big narratives that dominate news cycles — and yes, that includes the story of those Catholic school kids, which entered its fifth day Wednesday with a Today show interview with the boy at the center of the debate.
You might have thought the Today show would have led people to agree on at least some points. After all, in this case everyone saw exactly the same thing. Same camera angles. Same duration. Same questions. Same answers.
And yet! A clip posted online was received pretty much as you’d expect. NBC was slammed by some of the leading lights of Team MAGA for asking a “despicable & leading question” of the kid, and “putting words in his mouth.” It was also dismissed as carefully stage-managed pro-MAGA propaganda: “they filmed him from above to make him look smaller,” said one writer; a journalism professor noted the interviewer’s voice “drips with white-on-white empathy.”
It was very real footage, broadcast on one of the biggest shows on television. And it was just as furiously divisive as anything a counterfeiter could have doctored up.