The Snoop: Fake News

by Michael Boyink / [email protected]

462 times since December, 2016.

That’s how many times our current president has used the term “fake news” on Twitter.

He says he invented the phrase. That’s not true. But he’s certainly made it popular.

And while President Trump’s definition of “fake” is often “unfavorable”, technology is making it difficult for readers to discern real news from fake news.

Consider The Tennessee Star (see link at end of article). 

It sounds like a local news website. It looks like a local news website. But who runs it? Who owns it?

It’s not immediately obvious. You have to dig to find a notice that says the site is owned by “Star News Digital”. 

That’s a vague corporate name. Who is Star News Digital?

Politco, a political journalism company found that, “The publication, it turns out, is owned and operated by Steve Gill, a conservative commentator and radio host and Michael Patrick Leahy, a local political activist who also writes for Breitbart, though Breitbart is not itself involved in the Star.”

So is The Tennessee Star news? Yes. 

Is it fake news?

Not necessarily, but it’s news with an agenda. 

The Star – and similar sites owned by Star News Digital – are launched in areas of the country where the owners want to influence local opinion and votes. “The Star is part of a growing trend of opaque, locally focused, ideological outlets, dressed up as traditional newspapers,” says Politico.

In a detailed analysis, the popular fact-checking website Snopes said “Whatever The Tennessee Star is, it is not a local newspaper producing transparent journalism.”

But at least the  articles are written by humans.

For now.

The ability to churn out computer-generated fake articles that look legitimate is already available. 

A recent news headline read “Endless AI-generated spam risks clogging up Google’s search results.” AI stands for “Artificial Intelligence”.  AI is an umbrella term for many different types of software applications where the computer can teach itself.

In this case, someone who wanted to support an agenda or cause with a news article would only need to type in some keywords or a question and click a button. The AI software would return an article that, at first blush, sounds believable. The article could then easily be published on a blog or posted to social media.

The sample AI-powered marketing blog This Marketing Blog Does Not Exist has examples. 

Giving the AI program a question of “What Photo Filters are Best for Instagram Marketing?” returned an article complete with interviewees and quotes:

“I think I love pink the most,” said Qaisoun Phillips, of Harlem Shake fame. The artist created the trailer for Fredo Santana’s surprise Billboard Top 30 record release, Cobra Snake, using Postcard as well as Prism, Smile, Rose Mist and Champagne.” 

Getting a computer to string some words together to create a fake news article is easy, right?  Surely adding an author name and profile photo would add credibility?

Head on over to This Person Does Not Exist. The site presents photographic quality images of people. 

Fake people.

The images are entirely computer-generated. Just refresh the page until a suitable fake author candidate for your fake news article appears.

Well, OK. People (or governments) wanting to bend reality have been “photochopping” images for years. A picture might still be worth a thousand words, but one photo can’t validate an entire fake news story.

But video can, right?

Police officer body cams. Doorbells with video cameras. Security cameras. The ubiquitous smartphone.

For years video has been the trump card. Accepted as evidence in court cases. Used to prove anything from obnoxious neighbors to world-changing events like 9/11, the moon landing, and Tiananmen Square.

Enter “Deepfake” technology.

Feed a computer enough video of a source (such as a comedian) and a target (like Barack Obama), and you’ll soon have a very believable yet fake video of the former President with a new stand-up routine.

Let the implications of that sink in for a minute.

The 1983 science fiction film War Games had military staffers at NORAD with fingers poised over missile launch buttons, not sure if the images of incoming Russian missiles on their computer screens were real or fake. 

It was all fake. Their computer was playing a game. 

They figured it out in time. 

Will we?

Links:

– tennesseestar.com

– politico.com/story/2018/04/30/breitbart-tennessee-fake-news-560670

– snopes.com/news/2019/03/04/activists-setup-local-news-sites

– thismarketingblogdoesnotexist.com

– thispersondoesnotexist.com

– Deepfake demo: youtube.com/watch?v=gLoI9hAX9dw

– cnn.com/interactive/2019/01/business/pentagons-race-against-deepfakes