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Don’t believe your eyes

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

“A lie goes around the world three times before the truth has got its pants on.[1]
Mark Twain

Mirriad is a real company with a realtime tool that allows editors to place content into video streams. This tool can be used for anything (e.g. covering up a mustache that an actor has for another movie, as they did for Henry Cavill in a Superman movie), but their demonstration video shows how they’re selling this tool: as a way of injecting advertising and product placement in existing content.

The short video Mirriad end to end tech process (Vimeo) demonstrated their software in 2019. There is every reason to believe that they’re well beyond these capabilities now.

My initial reaction was revulsion at what they’re doing to movies. My secondary reaction is written below. I don’t want them messing with reality, but I have to admit that (A) I don’t really know what reality is and (B) they’ve been doing it for many decades already, on all levels. I mean, I know what I think reality is. I know what I think is real and fact-based, but I can’t really be sure. We’ve seen time and again how a consensus can be achieved on complete fabrications.

Once you accept that we can edit videos realistically like this, then you can no longer believe anything that you see. Can you? How do you know that the video you’re seeing is the original? How do you know that it truly reflects what happened, in the case of news videos, or what was originally intended, in the case of films?

In the case of news and information on which life-affecting decisions will be made, it’s clear that we need to get a handle on this. We’ve already seen how terribly the world acts when it’s fed fictitious information. We go to war. We hate the other. We hate ourselves. We stop taking medicine. We trust nothing. This is powerful stuff. But it’s not really new.

Putting an extra bottle of Corona in front of me is almost the least-harmful propaganda I can think of. I suppose it could subliminally encourage me to eat healthier and take more walks and smile more.

But that’s not what media does. We already have TVs positively filled with police procedurals that glorify police. There are horrifically violent movies that glorify the military every step of the way—usually the U.S. military. Content has always made minority groups look bad…now that’s changing, but we only rarely see content that sheds this legacy instead of just turning it on its head. That kind of manipulation doesn’t need any kind of technology, though, and it was powerful enough. It can always get worse, though, so I suppose if you mix it with technology, it will be even more powerful. We’ve already seen that as well.

This line was crossed in the last several decades as we accepted more and more CGI in our content. We’re used to thinking of CGI as “special effects”, like spaceships or monsters. But CGI is at its most powerful when it enhances a reality or shows a convincing reality. No-one’s going to believe that there are 60m-tall monsters walking around or that there are fleets of spaceships blowing each other up. You can make a movie about that without people thinking it’s real.

But what if you make a movie about groups of people meeting, say, under Nazi flags? For example, The Man in the High Castle is a show that is positively filled with CGI, but you notice almost none of it.

What if you suggest a movie or show like that is a documentary? What if someone does it for you? What if someone takes the content and edits your product into it? What if there’s only a small disclaimer? What if there’s no disclaimer? What if people don’t see the disclaimer and share it all over the place.

And how do we know that this isn’t already happening? Doesn’t it sound exactly like what is already happening?

We believe what we see and, even if we think “this isn’t real” while we’re watching it, our brains will helpfully stitch what we saw into memories and start to affect what we believe. Many of us will then “remember” that we saw a documentary or news clip about Nazi meetings regularly occurring in the modern day. When the news tells us that there are fascists all around us, we “remember” those images and confabulate a worldview that feels consistent, but is based on deliberate—or even just incidental and inadvertent—manipulation.

Most “news” organizations crossed the Rubicon long ago. They may have done so reluctantly, but the exigencies of competing in a purely capitalist environment drove them inexorably to it. Many didn’t seem to resist at all. They seemed almost relieved that they could stop pretending to care about actually informing people.[2]

The media are now full-blown fabulists, concerned with the “angle” instead of with presenting “facts” and “information”. Think of how they use re-enactments to show how things happened during a news show about a crime, for example. That’s all that people will remember. They know this. People will remember seeing the accused actually commit the crime. They will swear on a stack of bibles that they say it. Most people will no longer be dissuaded that they didn’t see it, unless someone can prove to them that they couldn’t have been there. And maybe not even then.

Since the time when Plato pointed out his cave shadows or Quine his qualia, we’ve had to deal with the notion of having sensors and interpretive equipment of dubious and highly varying quality. That’s bad enough, of course, but there’s nothing that can be done about it. We have to live with what we have in the way of eyes and ears (primarily; I know touch and taste and smell enter into it, as well, often very powerfully) and try to control our filter by (maybe) writing things down and discussing them and vetting them.

There are some who’ve doubted images even back when we didn’t have the power to fake them. For example, the Moon-hoax conspiracy theorists don’t believe we’ve ever been to the Moon. There are eloquent debunkings (e.g. Moon Landings Faked? Filmmaker Says Not! by S G Collins in 2013 (YouTube)) of this conspiracy theory that appeal to the fact that, in the 60s, we didn’t have the computing power or the film stock to fake all of the video we saw. We just didn’t have the capability to lie to ourselves at that level in film. It was actually more feasible to build a ship to go to and land on the Moon than it was to fake the videos of it.

We can no longer think that. We can fake nearly anything now. Deep fakes (from 2021) are just the beginning of how we can be manipulated. There are also deep fakes of fake people to worry about, as well.

So, if Mirriad is using their technology only to place products in old movies, that’s the least bad thing they could do with it. At least we can detect that, somehow, if we compare to a verified original. It’s not harmless, but it’s less harmful than fake videos of fake fascist leaders of organizations that don’t even exist, all designed to drum up fear. When Trump called everything “fake news”, he was—as he occasionally was—right for the wrong reasons.

Organizations ranging from obscure and niche web sites to giants like Newsweek collaborate to invent a Chinese enemy (from 2020). Will we even notice when they start using this technology to “improve” their version of reality? How do we know they aren’t doing so already? The set of tools they’re willing to use has grown over the years. With each year, it becomes “normal” and “accepted” to “fudge” things so that they’re more convincing, so that they’re more likely to convey the “truth” they’re supposed to convey.

Articles are edited after publication, with no correction noted. Entire videos are partially redacted in order to rob context that would lead to unwanted interpretations. Certain voices are amplified while others are suppressed. And always lies, lies, lies, many told with no other goal than short-term financial gain. There is no consideration for the damage done to society.

But this happened—and continues to happen—without special technology. It’s pretty much as old as time. William Randolph Hearst was whipping up a war way back in 1898 with nothing more than a single popular newspaper organization.[3]

The media is vastly more powerful today and can disseminate information faster and farther than ever, but the concept hasn’t changed. People haven’t gotten smarter. They are still super-easy to influence—perhaps especially politicians with power over so many lives. They are no better-informed than anyone else, unfortunately. Some are. Most aren’t. Many, if not most, end up believing that which enhances their own personal wealth the most. Technology has nothing to do with that.

[1] I cited it as I remembered it because I like it that way. This footnote serves as clarification that I’ve learned it incorrectly, both in phrasing and in attribution. See A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes (Quote Investigator) for a lengthy explication.

There are several reasons for this, none of them encouraging. See Be it Resolved: The Mainstream Media is Dying, and that’s OK. Matt Taibbi Debates Ben Bradlee, Jr. by Matt Taibbi (TK News) for a 45:00 debate on this subject as well as some excerpts, quoted below, in which Taibbi talks about long-form investigative journalism (months of work):

“In the Internet age, when everybody’s revenue is tied to content, and people are surfing constantly, it’s very difficult to financially justify that kind of work [investigative journalism]. You can get the same financial return from a 200-word article or a tweet or especially a viral video. Companies are very tempted to forgo that kind of investment. They’ve figured out that audiences, for the most part, don’t require it in the same way that they used to. And so, people are no longer really investing in that kind of work with the same passion. It’s a serious problem. Where are we going to find people to do those massive exposes anymore?”

The groupthink occurs without technological assistance. The people themselves choose to push a narrative rather than reporting what happened. This used to be a struggle, but not anymore. These days, nearly everyone entering the business doesn’t even see conformity as capitulation—instead, they root out heretics against the worldview they already have. There is nothing new for them to learn, no need to grow or change. Certainly, one can’t change one’s opinion when the facts are updated.

“In modern newsrooms, especially in the last four or five years, the intellectual diversity that I think was normal in a newsroom once upon a time is vanishing, and there is an expectation, especially among younger reporters, that everybody is going to be a team player, that they’re going to be devoted to pursuing the same ideological framework.”

The elites of the media are covering the elites of politics. There is no more check on them. It’s no wonder that the 99% aren’t heard. Instead, they are used as a ventriloquist’s dummy by people who consider themselves to be the ideological betters of this hoi polloi.

“If you go on the plane on the campaign trail, most of the people on the plane now are graduates of Ivy League universities. They live in rarefied areas of expensive, cosmopolitan neighborhoods. Socially, they see themselves as being the same people as the politicians they’re reporting on. That’s a terrible situation. I think that it’s an underrated problem within modern news media. It’s lost some touch with mass audiences — in part because they’re no longer the people who are covering the affairs of ordinary people.”
[3] See USS Maine (1889) / Yellow Journalism (Wikipedia) for more information.