Deepfakes aren’t the real problem

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the New Gatekeepers blog at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

When it comes to disinformation, the latest buzzword on everyone’s lips is “deepfake,” a term used to refer to videos that have been manipulated using computer imaging (the word is a combination of “deep learning” and “fake”). Using relatively inexpensive software, almost anyone can create a video that makes the person in a video appear to be saying or doing something they never said or did. In one of the most recent examples, a Slovakian video artist named Ctrl Shift Face modified a video clip of comedian Bill Hader imitating Robert De Niro, so that Hader’s face morphs into that of the actor while he is doing the imitation. Another pair of artists created a deepfake of Facebook co-founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg making sinister comments about his plans for the social network.

Technologists have been warning about the potential dangers of deepfakes for some time now. Nick Diakopolous, an assistant professor at Northwestern University, wrote a report called Reporting in a Machine Reality last year about the phenomenon, and as the US inches closer to the 2020 election campaign, concerns have continued to grow. The recent release of a doctored video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—slowed down to make her appear drunk—also fueled those concerns, although the Pelosi video was what some people have called a “cheapfake” or “shallowfake,” since it was obvious it had been manipulated. At a conference in Aspen this week, Mark Zuckerberg defended the fact the social network didn’t remove the Pelosi video, although he admitted it should not have taken so long to add a disclaimer and “down rank” the video.

Riding a wave of concern about this phenomenon, US legislators say they want to stop deepfakes at the source. So they have introduced something called the DEEPFAKES Accountability Act (in a classic Congressional move, the word “deepfakes” is capitalized because it is an acronym—the full name of the act is the Defending Each and Every Person from False Appearances by Keeping Exploitation Subject to Accountability Act). The law would make it a crime for anyone to create and distribute a piece of media that makes it look as though someone said or did something they didn’t say or do without including a digital watermark and text description that states it has been modified. The act also gives victims of “synthetic media” the right to sue the creators and “vindicate their reputations.”

Mutale Nkonde, a fellow with the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard and an expert in artificial intelligence policy, advised Congress on the Deepfakes Accountability Act and wrote in a post on Medium that the technology “could usher in a time where the most private parts of our lives could be outed through the release of manipulated online content — or even worse, as was the case with Speaker Pelosi, could be invented [out of] whole cloth.” In describing how the law came to be, Nkonde says that since repealing Section 230 of the Communications and Decency Act (which protects the platforms from liability for third-party content) would be difficult, legislators chose instead to amend the law related to preventing identity theft, “putting the distribution of deepfake content alongside misappropriation of information such as names, addresses, or social security numbers.”

Not everyone is enamored of this idea. While the artists who created the Zuckerberg video and the Hader video might be willing to add digital watermarks and textual descriptions to their creations identifying them as fakes, the really bad actors who are trying to manipulate public opinion and swing elections aren’t likely to volunteer to do so. And it’s not clear how this new law would force them to do this, or make it easier to find them so they could be prosecuted. The Zuckerberg and Hader videos were also clearly created for entertainment purposes. Should every form of entertainment that takes liberties with the truth (in other words, all of them) also carry a watermark and impose a potential criminal penalty on creators? According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the bill has some potential First Amendment problems.

Some believe this type of law attacks a symptom rather than a cause, in the sense that the overall disinformation environment on Facebook and other platforms is the problem. “While I understand everyone’s desire to protect themselves and one another from deepfakes, it seems to me that writing legislation on these videos without touching the larger issues of disinformation, propaganda, and the social media algorithms that spread them misses the forest for the trees,” said Brooke Binkowski, former managing editor of fact-checking site, who now works for a similar site called Truth or Fiction. What’s needed, she says, is legislation aimed at all elements of the disinformation ecosystem. “Without that, the tech will continue to grow and evolve and it will be a never-ending game of legislative catch-up.”

A number of experts, including disinformation researcher Joan Donovan of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center (who did a recent interview on CJR’s Galley discussion platform), have pointed out that you don’t need sophisticated technology to fool large numbers of people into believing things that aren’t true. The conspiracy theorists who peddle the rampant idiocy known as QAnon on Reddit and 4chan, or who create hoaxes such as the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, haven’t needed any kind of specialized technology whatsoever. Neither did those who promoted the idea that Barack Obama was born in Kenya. Even the Russian troll armies who spread disinformation to hundreds of millions of Facebook users during the 2016 election only needed a few fake images and plausible-sounding names.

There are those, including Nieman Lab director Joshua Benton, who don’t believe deepfakes are even that big a problem. “Media is wildly overreacting to deepfakes, which will have almost no impact on the 2020 election,” Benton said on Twitter after the Pelosi video sparked concern about deepfakes swamping voters with disinformation. Others, including the EFF, argue that existing laws are more than enough to handle deepfakes. In any case, rushing forward with legislation aimed at correcting a problem before it becomes obvious what the scope of the problem is—especially when that legislation has some obvious First Amendment issues—doesn’t seem wise.

Facebook’s cryptocurrency has something for everyone to hate

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Every once in a while, a company comes along that becomes a lightning rod for criticism from almost all directions, whether justifiably or not. At one point, this awkward mantle was held by IBM, and for a time Microsoft also played the role, but there’s no question who holds that title today: Facebook. The globe-spanning social network has become such a magnet for criticism that virtually anything it launches is questioned, if not dismissed outright as the work of a megalomaniac. That was certainly the dominant reaction to the company’s launch of a proposed cryptocurrency, known as Libra, which it announced with much fanfare on Tuesday. Although still very much in the formative stages, the proposal was roundly criticized by almost everyone, including a number of cryptocurrency experts, financial analysts, opponents of Big Tech, and financial regulators in both the US and the European Union (people born under the astrological sign Libra are apparently also upset).

To be fair, Facebook has brought much of this negative attention on itself. It has spent the past several years at first denying and then scrambling to fix (or cover up, depending on your perspective) multiple privacy breaches and failures that have exposed the personal data of hundreds of millions of users, including the Cambridge Analytica fiasco. The company has also been slow to react to the reality that its massive platform for targeted content and advertising has also been weaponized by professional trolls and agents of foreign governments, some of whom have used its tools in an attempt to influence elections in at least half a dozen countries. If anyone has done their best to poison the well when it comes to launching ambitious new projects like a global cryptocurrency, it is Facebook.

This explains why even in the most positive coverage of Facebook’s new currency, there was an unmistakeable sense that—as The Verge wrote about the Facebook Portal, a video screen product that the company released last year—this would have been a much more interesting (and potentially even positive) development if it had come from literally any other company. A global cryptocurrency? I’d like to know more! Controlled by Facebook? Er, no thanks. To make matters more frustrating for the company, it has gone to considerable lengths to make it clear that a) Libra won’t be controlled by Facebook, but by a non-profit consortium of members, and b) that none of the data provided by users will find its way into Facebook’s other operations—unless users explicitly say they want it to.

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If readers pay for your news, you’re one of the lucky ones

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the daily newsletter at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

Every year, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which is based at Oxford University in the UK, comes out with its Digital News Report, a survey of global trends and attitudes towards online news. Depending on your position in the media industry, it can be either good news or bad news. According to the latest edition, which came out Wednesday morning, if you’re a prosperous digital giant with a well-established subscription program, then you are probably in great shape, thanks to the growth of digital and mobile consumption of the news. If you’re a small publisher that still relies predominantly on print and your subscription plan still isn’t lucrative, however, the report is probably going to cause nightmares. As Facebook and Google continue to vacuum up the lion’s share of digital advertising around the globe, the landscape is looking increasingly barren for any publisher that isn’t already a market leader. (Google helps fund the Reuters report.)

One of the big headlines from the study is that, despite the efforts of news publishers to pivot away from advertising revenue and focus more on subscriptions and membership plans, there has only been a tiny increase in the number of people who pay for online news in any form in the past year, and the bulk of what little growth did occur came primarily in Nordic countries like Norway and Sweden. In the US, the so-called “Trump bump,” which led many news consumers to sign up for subscriptions to newspapers like The New York Times and Washington Post, seems to have slowed into a virtual flat line. The number of people who paid for news in the US jumped sharply in 2017, the Reuters report says, but it currently remains relatively “stable” (i.e. it isn’t growing) at 16 percent of the population.

On a related note, the study found that even in countries where fairly large numbers of news consumers pay for their news, the vast majority of those consumers only have a single subscription. As the report points out, this phenomenon—which turns subscription revenue into a scarce resource that virtually every other news outlet is also fighting for—suggests that there is a “winner take all” aspect to online news. That might benefit the Times or the Post, or newspapers like The Guardian in the UK, but as those outlets grow stronger, their smaller competitors could find it even more difficult to sign up new subscribers, no matter how good their coverage is. Some media analysts believe there is a distinct possibility that this could create a polarized market, where the big get bigger and the small get smaller, and those in the middle either dramatically change their models or die out.

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A tribute to Leon Redbone, a musician from another time

Like many other music fans, I was saddened to hear last week that Leon Redbone had died at the age of 69 — which isn’t really that old, in the grand scheme of things (I find that as I get older, my definition of old continues to increase). According to friends of the family, he had suffered from dementia for some time, which could be why he stopped performing in 2015. I saw him play in Toronto just two years earlier, at Hugh’s Room in The Junction, a lovely little bar/restaurant that itself seemed like something from another time, with a handful of tables grouped around a low stage in the corner.

Leon came out and sat in a chair with a small lamp beside him and a stool, and a young man accompanied him on piano as he ran through some of his favorites, like Shine On Harvest Moon, Walking Stick, and Marie. In between, he indulged in some classic Redbone patter, making jokes about himself and his music, starting and stopping songs multiple times to offer asides about this or that. After the show, I stopped him in the lobby where he was signing CDs to tell him how much I enjoyed his music, and he growled “Thank you very much” in that classic Redbone way. I didn’t want to bother him, but I’m really glad now that I took the time — those were his last filmed performances, and they appear in a short documentary about him that came out this year entitled “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.”

Every fan says this about their favorite musicians, but I’m pretty sure there was no one quite like Leon — he appeared seemingly out of nowhere in Toronto in the late 1960s, playing at various folk and jazz clubs. Word got around about this strange man with the unusual name, who played ancient blues and ragtime songs from the 1920s and 1930s, with the low growly voice and the amazing finger-picking style. I first saw him on Saturday Night Live, and he seemed like something from another time, with his riverboat-gambler style outfit, fedora and sunglasses, staring at the floor as he played the ancient hit “Champagne Charlie” (starts around 25:25 in the video below).

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NYT promotes questionable study on Google and the media

Note: This is something I originally wrote for the New Gatekeepers blog at the Columbia Journalism Review, where I’m the chief digital writer

A New York Times story published on Sunday contains an eye-opening allegation: it says that Google “made $4.7 billion from the news industry in 2018,” according to a new report. The lede of the story quotes the figure again, with all of the zeroes, and mentions that this number is “more than the combined ticket sales of the last two Avengers movies,” and is more than what most professional sports teams are worth (the writer of the story usually covers college sports, according to his Times bio). As it turns out, the report was published by the News Media Alliance, a media-industry lobby group formerly known as the Newspaper Association of America, and the figure quoted by the Times—without any critical assessment whatsoever—appears to be based almost entirely on questionable mathematical extrapolation from a comment made by a former Google executive more than a decade ago.

After quoting the head of the News Media Alliance, David Chavern, as saying newspapers deserve a cut of that $4.7 billion, and that the NMA believes this estimate is actually “conservative,” the Times story notes the number is based in part on a study done by a consulting firm called Keystone Strategy. That study in turn relies on a public comment by then-Google executive Marissa Mayer at a public event in 2008, when she estimated that Google News brought in $100 million in revenue. The News Media Alliance appears to have come up with the current figure in part by extrapolating from this comment, assuming that Google News revenue would make up the same proportion of the company’s revenue as $100 million was in 2008, and also that news consumption via Google’s main search is 6 times larger than via Google News (the report says this is based on referral traffic to newspaper websites).

A number of prominent journalists and media-industry observers have publicly scoffed at both the number and the report itself, and also questioned the desire of the Times to publicize such a thinly-sourced study without more skepticism (the Times didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment from CJR). Aron Pilhofer, former head of digital at The Guardian in the UK, and now the Chair of Journalism Innovation at Temple University, called the report’s conclusions “nonsense,” while Dan Gillmor, who runs the News Co/Lab at Arizona State University, said the Times embarrassed itself by running the story. Damon Kiesow, a journalism professor at Missouri University, said the NMA report was “a recap of all the complaints publishers have spouted at Google in the past decade,” and that it contained “no rational economic argument aside from the specious math the NYT reported.”

Several observers noted the story was timed in such a way as to provide maximum publicity for a bill that the New Media Alliance has been promoting to Congress, called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act. The proposed legislation would exempt newspaper companies from competition laws, which prevent industry-leading entities from colluding to set prices. The NMA argues this would allow publishers to lobby Google and other platforms for better financial compensation together instead of individually. Congress is holding hearings this week looking into whether Google and Facebook’s market dominance requires anti-trust action.

The main reason the NMA study had to jump through the kind of hoops it did in order to come up with a number for its report is that Google News doesn’t carry any advertising, and doesn’t generate any direct revenue from the headlines and excerpts of news content it provides. One of the most glaring omissions from the report, mentioned by a number of media-industry observers is that the headline-grabbing number doesn’t take into account any of the ad revenue newspapers have generated from the page views they get via links on Google News and Google’s main search page. The search company says publishers get more than 10 billion clicks every month (the value of which differs depending on the publisher). The NMA told CJR the purpose of the report was to look at how much Google benefits from news, not the opposite.

Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, said the NMA report’s framing was not a helpful way of looking at the kind of digital disruption the news media has gone through since the arrival of the internet. “Framing Google/FB and the effect on the ‘news industry’ in terms of $ amounts is not very helpful,” Bell said on Twitter. “Framing it as the concentration of money and data in the advertising market is better.” Elizabeth Hansen, a researcher working on local news business models at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, pointed out that “Internet platform economics were going to swamp the majority of publishers no matter what—there is (almost) no market for their products any more; not because they couldn’t make one, but because that’s not how internet economics work.”

In other words, the premise of the NMA’s report—and the argument behind the legislation it is promoting—is based on a misunderstanding of how the marketplace for information has evolved. While it’s true that revenue for newspapers has declined sharply over the past two decades, and revenue for Google and Facebook has increased just as dramatically, it’s not accurate to say that one caused the other. The ad market changed for a number of reasons—many having to do with an expansion of choice—and Google and Facebook took advantage of that. Newspaper publishers did not, again for a variety of reasons. So asking Google or Facebook to pay back something they theoretically took from the industry is mistaking cause for effect, and so is thinking that bargaining collectively with the platforms will somehow produce revenue that will save the media industry from the change occurring all around it.