Truth Sandwiches And Information Siloes: My Talk With Reporters on Media’s Role in Rooting Out Deepfakes
In an age of growing partisanship and collective suspicion of the media, credibility and trust has been further eroded by the proliferation of so-called “deepfakes”. These realistic but fake videos and audio compilations represent the dark side of AI software – depicting people doing things they’ve never done and saying things they’ve never said. And they’re everywhere.
What then is the role of the media itself when it comes to policing this? In CommPro’s recent panel, “Battling Deep Fakes and Misinformation – Media’s Role and Responsibility,” I sat down to discuss this thorny question with four knowledgeable experts in the space: CNN senior political analyst John Avlon; Axios media reporter Sara Fischer; senior Playboy White House reporter Brian Karem; and Techonomy founder and editor-in-chief David Kirkpatrick.
Stop the spread
Firstly, the most important element is that media not inadvertently amplify misinformation – a careful line that requires a thoughtful mix of people and tools, as Fischer explained. As the media industry continues to constrict, the former is increasingly limited but no less important – tools aren’t a substitute for people. As tactics change and technology like mass bot nets spread disinformation far and wide, platforms are getting better at weeding out the artificial – but it requires an added step of vigilant reporters and newsrooms, resources and training that is constantly working to stay ahead of the latest curve ball.
A particularly helpful tactic, per Avlon: judicious use of Twitter. “Feeding the trolls is a giant waste of time.”
Serve up truth sandwiches
And yet, media has a responsibility to flag “fake news” to the public – “there’s a core and urgent responsibility to confront these things,” Avlon noted. But, while media has a role in calling out extremes, how reporters do it is important. He recommends what he calls a truth sandwich: begin with a truth, then discuss the false allegation, and reinforce the truth. “This is a form of information warfare, and journalists are on the front lines,” he explained.
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To do this successfully, Karem added, a journalist needs solid grounding in their subject area. A deep knowledge of the topic in question helps make odd bits of information stick out – and gives the journalist both a credibility and know-how for best presenting the mistruths to the American people, he told me.
Policing the platforms
The boogeyman in a great deal of deepfake proliferation is, unsurprisingly, social media. The influence wielded by giants like Facebook makes them as if not more so influential than the media, as Kirkpatrick noted – while their algorithms nudge users into comfortable silos and echo chambers.
“Now anybody really can manipulate the narrative, and do it readily,” he said. “And that makes the battle reporters are engaged in, unfortunately, almost rearguard.” He went on to say that the continued questions around these swirling, largely ungoverned forces further challenge efforts to debunk deepfakes – with chief executives of some (if not all) channels making to varying degrees the decision to not interfere.
“Democracies need to defend themselves against disinformation, and clearly platforms have a responsibility, “ Avlon noted.
In the meantime, Fischer said, countering misinformation on such platforms comes largely down to trust. “When there’s a trust void, people are going to look for familiar voices to fill the knowledge gap,” she explained. This could in fact be a beacon for positive change – with people turning to established institutions for information, as their go-to sources on social media platforms become increasingly convoluted.
Making it interesting
Beyond truth sandwiches, the pros I spoke with pointed out that if journalists neglect a core part of their job – compelling narrative storytelling – they’ll struggle to counter fakes and pull eyeballs away from social media rabbit holes.
“We have a proliferation of information, and you’ve got to find your differentiation,” as Avlon put it.
And – where the information is delivered is as important as what it is, Fischer added. Audiences are more receptive to certain topics through certain mediums, and it’s on the journalist to figure this out.
“We are in a renaissance of specialized media,” Kirkpatrick observed. “It may be that the overall audience for information that is not hyperbolic has actually increased alongside the growth of diverse firms of media” – but the media landscape hasn’t caught up with the change.
All told, there’s still a long way to go in thwarting deepfakes and misinformation. The tools in the toolkit of both consumers and media are plenty – a grounding in thorough knowledge, a willingness to step outside comfort zones and echo champers, and the thoughtful deployment of tech tools that can help sift through the onslaught.