Friday, September 20, 2019

An Illusionist's Take on Combating the Dangers of Deepfake Videos

By Steve Trash - Illusionist, Eco-Educator, and Rockin' Eco Hero

Before you toss that steaming, red-hot iron skillet to someone else – stop, think, act. 

In the very near future – possibly as soon as our next election cycle – you are going to see, and potentially share, online images, both video and still photos, that are totally made up. They are fabricated. They are fake, but you won’t even pause to question them. 

It’s not even like they will be honest misinterpretations of events by journalists trying to find the truth under murky circumstances. It’s not like they will be misperceived events by key, first-hand eyewitnesses. 

They are 100 percent demonstrably false. They are literally a trick – and they will feel like a scalding, red-hot iron skillet that you must share with others right now.

These deepfake videos and photos are created with the intention of deceiving you and manipulating you into sharing a false narrative with the world. “False narrative” is a fancy phrase that just means a lie. 

Illusionists create false narratives, but we aren’t liars because you know what we are creating is an illusion. Everything we do is predicated on this idea: that we are creating illusions. It’s in our job description.

If you see a magician doing something amazing, you think, “Wow, that’s cool.” You don’t rush toward the door screaming in terror because you’ve just seen someone violate natural laws. You know it’s an illusion. 

You know the lady isn’t really floating in the air. You know the rabbit didn’t really appear out of an empty hat. It’s all an illusion. 

Deepfake videos, on the other hand, are similar to the magic illusionists create, but they cause real harm. They are dangerous exactly because you do not know they are illusions. 

They are so cleverly designed that you’ll perceive them as completely true. You won’t even have a notion that they are lies. To add to our confusion, these images will be generated in real time, giving them a truthful feel. 

These images will be demonstrably false. They will not be a genuine depiction of any actual event – but they will appear to be very real. This is not good.

The human mind is capable of some extraordinary things – science, integrity, honor, math, love – but it can be extremely fallible. Magicians know this, and it’s why magic tricks work on our minds. We give you tiny bits of information, and you make lots of big assumptions. 

Our minds have worked like this forever. Generally speaking, it’s why we’re still around as a species. Our ancestors heard something scary stirring in the bushes, and they ran. They didn’t wait around to see if it was a lion or a really big squirrel. The slow responders get eaten by the lion.
We are descendants of the scaredy-cats. They made quick assumptions, and it paid off for them – and for us. We possess the DNA of scaredy-cats. 

Deepfake videos are aiming right at that quick judgment, scaredy-cat mind. Our minds are primed for it. The deepfake videos are screaming at us to pick them up and share them with others, shouting, “This is totally real! Others need to know about this! We need to do something about it! Share it! Share it now!”

I am a professional illusionist. I use perception in my job every single day. I create the illusion that a golf ball just magically vanished into thin air. Seriously – that didn’t just happen, did it? Actually, no, it didn’t. I was able to use your assumptions and your quick-judgment mind to create a fun illusion.

We know the human mind makes thousands and thousands of assumptions every day. Our minds do this to conserve mental energy. Using mental energy is taxing; making assumptions means less stress. Questioning your assumptions means more stress. Logically, we’re going to take the less-stress route whenever possible, and this creates holes in our perception.

Illusionists know where the holes are, and we use them to manipulate you. False assumptions are going to lead to false conclusions. This is exactly how all magic tricks work. 

For example, if I take a stack of three or four large books out of a magic hat and show you the hat is now empty, you will assume the hat is completely empty. You assume this because I’ve given you no reason to be suspicious. It all feels fair and truthful. 

It’s not. You’ve just been tricked. 

The hat has a secret compartment that hides a rabbit, and the books are not solid. They collapse to make space for the rabbit and expand when taken out of the hat. You assumed incorrectly because of your supporting assumptions about hats and books, and it would have taken a lot more work to be skeptical of your assumptions. 

If I pass a hoop over a floating woman, you’ll assume there can be no skinny wires holding her up. The assumption is that the hoop is solid and would hang-up on the wires, so there can’t be any wires. 

This is a false assumption. You made assumptions about wires and hoops, about their nature, that were incorrect. You were fooled. Your quick-judgment mind was fooled. 

Let’s leave the magic show and move to politics. Things you assume will go unquestioned. 

Are Democrats evil? The image you’ve just seen online must be true. You know this instantly, without even questioning it. 

Are Republicans evil? The image must be true. 

Are Russians evil? The image must be true. 

Are Muslims evil? The image must be true. 

Are Christians evil? The image must be true. 

Remember, we humans are already biased to believe things that support ideas we hold true and to ignore the things that do not mesh with our beliefs. This is called confirmation bias. We literally see what we want to see and ignore what we don’t. 

This makes sense because to do otherwise requires an endless amount of brain energy – and that’s just too exhausting. However, that leaves us vulnerable to mental manipulation. The very fact that our minds conserve energy by taking shortcuts creates dangerous opportunities in a modern, hyper-fast, technologically-connected and potentially viral world. 

These deepfake videos and photos rely on this shortcut to emotionally grab us, hold us and take us captive to the narrative. They have real-world consequences, too. 

Here’s a simple example: What if a person you know appears, in a video, to be doing something immoral or illegal? Do you instantly believe it, or do you question it? Would you be outraged and share it online moments after you’ve seen it? What if you believe all cops are bad? What if you believe all cops are good? This will deeply influence how you see the truth of the video. You won’t even pause to question it. It’s true. Share it. 

Let’s say a politician or public figure appears, in a video, to be doing something disgusting, vile, or repulsive. If you dislike this person already, you will automatically believe this video to be true. It will go unquestioned. It supports something you already believe. 

“That’s a bad person,” you’ll instantly say to yourself. “Of course the video is true.” If it supports something you already believe, you are unlikely to question its truthfulness. “Yeah. That dude is evil. Of course he did that. I need to share this so other people will know.” It’s a hot skillet, and others need to know about it – press share!

The hotter the skillet, the more likely we are to instantly toss it to others without questioning its truthfulness. This is not good, because we are sharing a lie with millions of people, and we’re doing it in nanoseconds. 

This has the dangerous potential to create angry mobs of folks who are outraged over stuff that simply didn’t happen. We can share the red-hot skillet with millions long before we’ve evaluated whether it’s true or false. 

So, as a peddler of joy, surprise and harmless false-assumption-fun, I as a magician have a small suggestion that might keep us from setting the whole house on fire.

Stop. Stop before you pick up the hot skillet and toss it to someone else. First, put some space between stimulus and response. Then take a moment to think – yes, think. Ask the question: Is this true? Being skeptical is mentally healthy.
Remember, the more outlandish and the hotter the skillet, the longer the stop should be – and the deeper the questioning should go.
Before passing the skillet on, ask: Are there any holes in the narrative? What’s the source? Does anything seem “off” about the picture? Does it engender in you very strong emotions? 

Most important of all, does it support something you already believe strongly? If yes, take a long pause before sharing and seriously think about it. 

Quick judgments and assumptions kept our ancestors safe from being eaten by wild animals and got us, evolutionarily, to this exact moment in history. We owe them a lot. It has worked super well, but right now we’re facing a real – and possibly existential – crisis. Our lives are now so interfaced with technology that our quick-judgment scaredy-cat minds have been transformed from an asset to a liability, and we didn’t even notice the change.

In the 21st century we rarely have to make instant life-and-death decisions multiple times a day – unless you’re a cop or firefighter, and even then, it’s super rare. There is almost no need to instantly respond to something online, even when it feels like an emergency. 

What we really need to do is learn to stop, think, then act. We need a new system of response. We need a new habit. We need to develop a new habit of making considered, thoughtful judgments. But it’s hard. It’s really hard. It really does go against our instincts, but that’s what responsible citizens do. We take responsibility for our actions in society.

We must retrain our minds a bit because our minds are yelling and screaming to pass the hot skillet. We need to stop. Think. Then act. Our technological connectedness makes it absolutely critical that we pause before reacting. In fact, he hotter the skillet, the longer you should give that idea to cool off before you toss it to someone else. This is not easy because it goes against our instincts – our instinct to share, to run from the loud noise in the bushes. We’ve got train ourselves to respond differently. 

Can you train yourself to not instantly respond to instinct?

Sure you can. Babies get the impulse to pee, and what do they do? They pee. They do it right there. But as we grow older, we retrain our minds to respond to “I need to pee” in a new way. Rather than releasing our bladders immediately on impulse, we constrict and hold it until we reach a toilet. 

We train ourselves to override the instant response impulse. We, in fact, get so good at this overriding, it becomes a habit, and we don’t even have to consciously think about it anymore. 

If you can hold your pee, you can surely stop, think, act before sharing. 

If you stop, think, act, and the skillet still stays hot – then fine, toss it. You probably didn’t share misinformation. The truth-seeking civilized world thanks you for your service. 

We humans have been around for a long time. We’ve made it through some system-shocking, cultural-societal-transformational changes before – the Stone Age, the Agricultural Revolution, the Iron Age and the Industrial Revolution – and each time we developed a new set of rules, guidelines, and habits to respond to the challenges of modern life. 

We’re once again at one of those major crossroads in human history. Deepfake videos are dangerous because they create a totally believable false narrative. They are dangerous because they feel totally real but are not. Deepfake videos are dangerous, most of all, because they use our own minds’ vulnerabilities against us. 

So … How do we respond?

Get accustomed to a new mental choice. Every time you see an outlandish, amazing, horrific, emotionally “hot skillet” video … stop, think, act before sharing. Be skeptical. Question it. Don’t just instantly share it. Don’t let your minds’ assumptions go unchecked. 

Cynicism is unhealthy, but skepticism is quite healthy. This simple three-word habit – stop, think, act – allows us to handle all the hot skillets that come our way without allowing them to burn the whole darn house down.

Which is a good thing. We can do this. Please pass the taters.


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