If you were under any illusion that online hooey peaked with the 2016 election, brace yourself for the era of “deepfakes” — fabricated videos so realistic they can put words in the mouths of politicians or anyone else that they never said.
As the 2020 election approaches, a new University of Washington initiative aims to combat the wave of increasingly sophisticated digital counterfeiting and misinformation coursing through social media and give the public tools to sort fact from fakery.
The Center for an Informed Public (CIP) has been seeded with $5 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, part of a $50 million round of grants awarded this year to 11 U.S. universities and research institutions to study how technology is transforming democracy.
The mission is to use the new research to help everyone vulnerable to being fooled by online manipulation — whether it’s schoolkids unsure about which news sites are trustworthy or baby boomers uncritically sharing fraudulent news stories on Facebook.
“It’s not a K-12 problem. It’s a K-99 problem,” said Kate Starbird, a UW associate professor and one of the CIP’s principal researchers, who has spent years studying the spread of conspiracy theories and deliberate misinformation in the wake of crisis events like school shootings and the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.
At a formal launch ceremony Tuesday, the UW announced the center will partner with Washington State University faculty as well, bringing a cross-state approach to a problem that affects people in conservative and liberal areas alike.
Which face is real? One of these images is computer-generated and one is a real photograph. Can you tell the difference? Click to see the answers below.
“This is about our democracy, no question,” UW President Ana Mari Cauce said before a crowd of about 400 at the launch event at the UW Husky Union Building, where she and WSU President Kirk Schulz signed letters signaling their universities’ intent to collaborate.
“In a politically divided state, if we can do it right here, maybe we can get this right for the rest of the country,” said Jevin West, CIP’s director and an associate professor in the UW Information School.
In interviews this week, West and other CIP founders said a major goal is to bring their academic research out of the universities and to the wider public. They’ll start with a series of town halls, beginning with one in Seattle on Jan. 23 at Town Hall (1119 8th Ave.), with other events across the state over the coming months. They also envision partnerships with schools and public libraries.
“This is an opportunity to take what we are doing out of the ivory tower,” said Bruce Pinkleton, dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at WSU, who is working on the new collaboration, which brings together disciplines including the information school, law and journalism.
Starbird and other researchers have examined millions of tweets and discovered how various actors, including foreign intelligence operatives, have worked to intensify political divisions in America.
In 2016, for example, Twitter accounts associated with Russia’s Internet Research Agency impersonated activists supportive and critical of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Tweets from those accounts became some of the most widely shared. “Russian agents did not create political division in the United States, but they were working to encourage it,” Starbird recounted in a Medium post about the research.
Starbird said she hopes the UW’s new center can “help people better understand how misinformation and disinformation work, and how they function to undermine democratic institutions.”
West said the new center will seek to help “create a culture where we pause a little before sharing something online… once you put [false information] out there, it’s so hard to clean up.”
That’s going to be increasingly difficult as advances in video gamelike technology have enabled creation of lifelike faces generated by computer algorithms. Those representations have surmounted what some call the “uncanny valley” — meaning the fake faces no longer fill viewers with an instinctively creepy feeling because they do not look quite human, West said.
“The technology is getting so good that we are not that far from simply not being able to distinguish” between real and fake images, said West. UW researchers themselves have created fabricated faces to show how difficult they can be to spot, with a popular website called “Which Face Is Real?”
The CIP grew in part out of the UW’s popular course, “Calling BS in the Age of Big Data,” created two years ago by West and biology professor Carl Bergstrom. The course is in such demand that its 160 seats filled within one minute of registration opening this quarter, West said.
Sam Gill, who leads community and national initiatives for the Knight Foundation, said he sees the new UW center as “sort of like the first public health school in the country for the Internet.”
The link between quality information and public health is not merely metaphorical, as Internet-fueled misconceptions about vaccines have contributed to outbreaks of measles and other diseases once thought eradicated. An ongoing measles outbreak in Samoa has killed 50 children.
Similarly, misinformation has made it harder for the U.S. to combat climate change, which scientists predict will wreak havoc in the coming decades unless big cuts are made in greenhouse-gas emissions. Emma Spiro, an assistant professor in the Information School and another CIP researcher, said there is already talk of collaboration with the UW’s EarthLab research institute to address climate knowledge.
Pinkleton, the WSU dean, said he’s realistic about hostility from some quarters toward academics, journalists and others who trade in factual information. “There are some people who frankly don’t want to know the truth. Those people, I am not sure we are ever going to reach,” he said.
But Pinkelton said quality information is not partisan and people of all political persuasions should be concerned with the breakdown in shared facts. “The reality is truth benefits us all. Whether you are conservative or liberal is unimportant,” he said.
Face A: Fake, computer-generated
Face B: Real photograph
Face C: Real photograph
Face D: Fake, computer-generated
Face E: Real photograph
Face F: Fake, computer-generated
Face G: Real photograph
Face H: Fake, computer-generated