[Ted Byfield] The high risk involved in these false impersonation games

[Ted Byfield] The high risk involved in these false impersonation games

The Culture
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They could wind up destroying the credibility of the whole audio-visual media

I’ve heard of people being described as “victims of their own success,” but I cannot recall a whole industry perishing from it. However, if you can believe what’s trickling into the social and non-social media these days, we are about to see that very thing happen. The victim will be to the audio-visual branch of the news media. The makers, that is, of the videos that increasingly accompany news stories, or are news stories in themselves. From the piecemeal descriptions of what’s going on, this industry appears to be committing suicide.

VIDEO: [Matthias Niessner] Face2Face: Real-time Face Capture and Reenactment of RGB Videos. [Mar. 16, 2016]


Do you notice that ever more often these days, people in the social media seem to be voicing ever more startling things—assertions, admissions, concessions, confessions, almost wild things about themselves or other people. You can barely believe it. Yet there they are saying it, right in front of you. How can you doubt it? Can you not believe your own eyes and ears? You saw him actually saying it.

Well, the brute fact may be that you didn’t hear him saying it at all. What you saw and heard was the latest “advance” in electronic technology. Apparently we are now able to take the moving face of someone talking and make the facial muscles say something else. We can also break down the sounds made by his or her voice and reassemble them so that an identical voice is saying whatever we made the facial muscles say. In short, you can totally invent things for some prominent person to say and do that could gravely damage, or totally destroy, his business, professional, or political career, and under present law there is very little he could do about it.

The best description I’ve found of this new phenomenon was an article by the prophet Jordan Peterson (my term for him because he is certainly a present fulfillment of that ancient prophetic function.) Writing in the National Post, Peterson cites some of the dreadful current horror stories and swindles that new technology has made possible—pathetic videos in which an ostensibly impoverished youth is shown appealing to his technically illiterate grandparents to please wire money immediately, or the internationally respected actress dubbed into the star role of a porn movie in a video that doubtless spread across the world.

Worse still, writes Peterson, the technology needed to produce this is becoming increasingly easy for semi-amateurs to handle. Soon fake political speeches—making points the victim never raised on issues that did not interest him but which, replayed on television or social media, could nevertheless ruin his reputation. What can be done about this? Under present law, very little, it seems. And if we can’t believe the media, whom do we believe? The Web? But it can be the biggest fraudster of them all.

As it is, there is no law on the books to protect the individual against these impersonations, except perhaps the fraud section of the Criminal Code. But not all the damage being caused is pecuniary. If the effect is to portray the victim as a fool, scoundrel, liar, or dangerous lunatic, such laws there are don’t easily apply to this. But the damage can be very real indeed. So what do we do, asks Peterson, when we can’t distinguish the true from the unreal? The only way to confidently see and hear what a candidate has to say is to go to a campaign meeting and hear him say it. So far, technology has not enabled us to create a live flesh an blood copy of someone else.

But notice what is happening here. The electronic audio and visual media, are losing credibility. What has long been the most powerful element in all public discussion of political, cultural and moral issues is rapidly losing the one thing it can’t afford to lose, notably believability. If you want to discover what the election is really about, you have to go out to the election meetings and find out for yourself. At their best, the media will only confuse you.

Now it’s no accident that the man who most clearly brings this before us is Jordan Peterson. More than anyone else in the current Public Square, he has mastered the audio-visual media. Every challenger the Left has put up against him has come away visibly demolished. So if the present abuses of false impersonation have the effect of destroying the whole battlefield, this will not altogether distress the Left. It may at least solve their Peterson Problem, where the battles are going so tellingly against them.

But it will cost western society what has been, up until this recent distortion, a valid and useful avenue of discussion for all major public issues. Surely some legal way can be found to prohibit the false impersonation of living people. It matters.

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