President Donald Trump points at CNN’s Jim Acosta and accuses him of “fake news” while taking questions during a news conference following Tuesday’s midterm congressional elections at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 7, 2018.
Kevin Lemarque | Reuters
“The Boy Who Cried Wolf” has long been a staple on nursery room shelves for a reason: It teaches kids that joking too much about a possible threat may turn people ignorant when the threat becomes an actual danger.
President Donald Trump has been warning about “fake news” throughout his entire political career putting a dark cloud over the journalism professional. And now the real wolf might be just around the corner that industry experts should be alarmed about.
The threat is called “deepfaking,” a product of AI and machine learning advancements that allows high-tech computers to produce completely false yet remarkably realistic videos depicting events that never happened or people saying things they never said. A viral video starring Jordan Peele and “Barack Obama” warned against this technology in 2018, but the message was not enough to keep Jim Carrey from starring in “The Shining” earlier this week.
The danger goes far beyond manipulating 1980s thrillers. Deepfake technology is allowing organizations that produce fake news to augment their “reporting” with seemingly legitimate videos, blurring the line between reality and fiction like never before — and placing the reputation of journalists and the media at greater risk.
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Ben Zhao, a computer science professor at the University of Chicago, thinks the age of getting news on social media makes consumers very susceptible to this sort of manipulation.
“What the last couple years has shown is basically fake news is quite compelling even in [the] absence of actual proof. … So the bar is low,” Zhao said.
The bar to produce a convincing doctored video is lower than people might assume.
Earlier this year a clip purporting to show Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi slurring her words when speaking to the press was shared widely on social media, including at one point by Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani. However, closer inspection revealed that the video had been slowed to 75% of its normal speed to achieve this slurring effect, according to the Washington Post. Even with the real video now widely accessible, Hany Farid, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Information and a digital forensics expert, said he still regularly receives emails from people insisting the slowed video is the legitimate one.
“Even in these relatively simple cases, we are struggling to sort of set the record straight,” Farid said.
It would take a significant amount of expertise for a fake news outlet to produce a completely fabricated video of Oprah Winfrey endorsing Trump, but researchers say the technology is improving every day. At the University of Washington, computer vision researchers are developing this technology for positive, or at least benign, uses like making video conferencing more realistic and letting students talk to famous historical figures. But this research also leads to questions about potential dangers, as the attempts made by attackers are expected to continually improve.
How to detect a deepfake
To make one of these fake videos, computers digest thousands of still images of a subject to help researchers build a 3-D model of the person. This method has some limitations, according to Zhao, who noted the subjects in many deepfake videos today never blink, since almost all photographs are taken with a person’s eyes open.
However, Farid said these holes in the technology are being filled incredibly rapidly.
“If you asked me this question six months ago, I would’ve said, ‘Yeah, [the technology] is super cool, but there’s a lot of artifacts, and if you’re paying attention, you can probably tell that there’s something wrong,'” Farid said. “But I would say we are … quickly but surely getting to the point where the average person is going to have trouble distinguishing.”
In fact, Zhao said researchers believe the shortcomings that make deepfake videos look slightly off to the eye can readily be fixed with better technology and better hardware.
“The minute that someone says, ‘Here’s a research paper telling you about how to detect this kind of fake video,’ that is when the attackers look at the paper and say, ‘Thank you for pointing out my flaw. I will take that into account in my next-generation video, and I will go find enough input … so that the next generation of my video will not have the same problem,'” Zhao said.
One of the more recent developments in this field is in generating speech for a video. To replicate a figure such as Trump’s voice, computers can now simply analyze hundreds of hours of him speaking. Then researchers can type out what they want Trump to say, and the computer will make it sound as if he actually said it. Facebook, Google and Microsoft have all more or less perfected this technology, according to Farid.
Manipulated videos of this sort aren’t exactly new — Forest Gump didn’t actually meet JFK, after all. However, Farid says this technology is hitting its stride, and that makes the danger new.
“To me the threat is not so much ‘Oh, there’s this new phenomenon called deepfakes,'” Farid said. “It’s the injection of that technology into an existing environment of mistrust, misinformation, social media, a highly polarized electorate, and now I think there’s a real sort of amplification factor because when you hear people say things, it raises the level of belief to a whole new level.”
The prospect of widespread availability of this technology is raising eyebrows, too. Tech-savvy hobbyists have long been using deepfakes to manufacture pornography, a consistent and comically predictable trend for new technology. But Zhao believes it is only a matter of time before the research-caliber technology gets packaged and released for mass-video manipulation in much broader contexts.
“At some point someone will basically take all these technologies and integrate and do the legwork to build a sort of fairly sophisticated single model, one-stop shop … and when that thing hits and becomes easily accessible to many, then I think you’ll see this becoming much more prevalent,” Zhao said. “And there’s nothing really stopping that right now.”
Facing a massive consumer trust issue
When this happens, the journalism industry is going to face a massive consumer trust issue, according to Zhao. He fears it will be hard for top-tier media outlets to distinguish a real video from a doctored one, let alone news consumers who haphazardly stumble across the video on Twitter.
“Once we live in an age where videos and images and audio can’t be trusted … well, then everything can be fake,” Farid said. “We can have different opinions, but we can’t have different facts. And I think that’s sort of the world we’re entering into when we can’t believe anything that we see.”
Zhao has spent a great deal of time speaking with prosecutors, judges — the legal profession is another sector where the implications are huge — reporters and other professors to get a sense for every nuance of the issue. However, despite his clear understanding of the danger deepfakes pose, he is still unsure of how news outlets will go about reacting to the threat.
“Certainly, I think what can happen is … there will be even less trust in sort of mainstream media, the main news outlets, legitimate journalists [that] sort of react and report real-time stories because there is a sense that anything that they have seen … could be in fact made up,” Zhao said.
Then it becomes a question of how the press deal with the disputes over reality.
“And if it’s someone’s word, an actual eyewitness’ word versus a video, which do you believe, and how do you as an organization go about verifying the authenticity or the illegitimacy of a particularly audio or video?” Zhao asked.
Defeating the deepfakes
Part of this solution may be found in the ledger technology that provides the digital infrastructure to support cryptocurrencies like bitcoin — the blockchain. Many industries are touting blockchain as a sort of technological Tylenol. Though few understand exactly how it works, many swear it will solve their problems.
Farid said companies like photo and video verification platform Truepic, to which he serves as an advisor, are using the blockchain to create and store digital signatures for authentically shot videos as they are being recorded, which makes them much easier to verify later. Both Zhao and Farid are hoping social platforms like Facebook and Twitter will then promote these videos that are verified as authentic over non-verified videos, helping to halt the spread of deepfakes.
“The person creating the fake always has the upper hand,” Farid said. “Playing defense is really, really hard. So I think in the end our goal is not to eliminate these things, but it’s to manage the threat.”
Until this happens, Zhao said the fight against genuinely fake news may not start on a ledger, but in stronger consumer awareness and journalists banding together to better verify sources through third parties.
“One of the hopes that I have for defeating this type of content is that people are just so inundated with news coverage and information about these types of videos that they become fundamentally much more skeptical about what a video means and they will look closer,” Zhao said. “There has to be that level of scrutiny by the consumer for us to have any chance of fighting back against this type of fake content.”
A woman in Washington, D.C., views a manipulated video that changes what is said by President Donald Trump and former president Barack Obama, illustrating how deepfake technology can deceive viewers.
ROB LEVER | AFP | Getty Images
Nicholas Diakopoulos, assistant professor in Northwestern University’s School of Communication and expert on the future of journalism, said via email that the best solutions involve a mix of educational and sociotechnical advances.
“There are a variety of perceptual cues that can be tip-offs to a deepfake and we should be teaching those broadly to the public,” he said.
Diakopoulos has referenced Farid’s work on photo forensics among ideas outlined in an article he wrote for the Columbia Journalism Review last year. He also cited a research project called FaceForensics that uses machine learning to detect, with 98.1% accuracy, whether a video of a face is real. Another research technique under study: Blood flow in video of a person’s face can be analyzed in order to see if pixels periodically get redder when the heart pumps blood.
“On the sociotechnical side, we need to develop advanced forensics techniques that can help debunk synthesized media when put into the hands of trained professionals,” he told CNBC. “Rapid response teams of journalists should be trained and ready to use these tools during the 2020 elections so they can debunk disinformation as quickly as possible.”
Diakopoulos has studied the implications of deepfakes for the 2020 elections specifically. He also has written papers on how journalists need to think when “reporting in a machine reality.”
And he remains optimistic.
“If news organizations develop clear and transparent policies of their efforts using such tools to ensure the veracity of the content they publish, this should help buttress their trustworthiness. In an era when we can’t believe our eyes when we see something online, news organizations that are properly prepared, equipped and staffed are poised to become even more trusted sources of information.”
House Democrats’ impeachment report accuses Trump of obstruction, other misconduct
Democrats on Tuesday publicly released a new report accusing President Donald Trump of soliciting Ukraine to interfere in the 2020 election for his benefit and obstructing the impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives.
The 300-page report alleges that, “In furtherance of this scheme, President Trump conditioned official acts on a public announcement by the new Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky, of politically-motivated investigations” into former Vice President Joe Biden, currently a top presidential candidate, and his son Hunter.
“In pressuring President Zelensky to carry out his demand, President Trump withheld a White House meeting desperately sought by the Ukrainian President, and critical U.S. military assistance to fight Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine,” the report says.
The report, written by the Democratic members of the House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees, came on the eve of the next phase of the impeachment probe, where the House Judiciary Committee is expected to draft formal articles of impeachment against Trump.
The Democrat-led Intelligence panel plans to vote tuesday night to formally issue the report, which was technically in draft form at the time of its initial release.
The report is the most substantial document to date laying out the president’s alleged scheme at the center of the impeachment inquiry. But it arrives a day after a dueling report released by House Republicans, who assert that Democrats are merely attempting to tank Trump’s re-election chances and “undo the will of the American people.”
In a statement, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said that Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and other Democrats “utterly failed to produce any evidence of wrongdoing by President Trump. This report reflects nothing more than their frustrations.”
“Chairman Schiff’s report reads like the ramblings of a basement blogger straining to prove something when there is evidence of nothing,” Grisham said.
The impeachment probe began in earnest in September on the heels of reporting on a bombshell whistleblower complaint that raised alarms about a July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy.
A memorandum of that call, released a day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced the impeachment probe, shows Trump asking Zelenskiy to “look into”the Bidens and Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company where Hunter served as a board member while his father was vice president.
Trump and his allies have alleged that Joe Biden, as Barack Obama’s veep, called for the firing of a Ukrainian prosecutor general in order to protect his son. But those allegations are unsubstantiated, and Joe Biden’s calls for Ukraine to fire that prosecutor were echoed by many other western nations at the time.
Trump also asked Zelenskiy to “do us a favor though” and also investigate a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election — rather than Russia, which is blamed for election meddling by virtually all U.S. intelligence officials.
This is breaking news. Please check back for updates.
Dow drops 400 points after Trump says he could wait on China deal
U.S. equities sank on Tuesday after President Donald Trump suggested he may want to delay a trade deal with China until after the 2020 presidential election.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 400 points in morning trading, led lower by trade-vulnerable Apple, Caterpillar and Boeing. The S&P 500 slid 1% amid losses in chip stocks like Nvidia, Micron and Advanced Micro Devices. The Nasdaq Composite lost more than 1%.
Markets hit the lows of their day after Fox News reported that the White House still plans on moving ahead with scheduled Dec. 15 tariffs on Chinese goods notwithstanding recent efforts at a “phase one” trade truce. Tuesday’s losses add to a steep decline from the previous session and were on track to push the Dow to its biggest two-day loss since Oct. 2 with a decline of more than 660 points.
“In some ways, I like the idea of waiting until after the election for the China deal, but they want to make a deal now and we will see whether or not the deal is going to be right,” Trump told reporters earlier on Tuesday.
When asked if he had a deal deadline, he added: “I have no deadline, no … In some ways, I think it is better to wait until after the election if you want to know the truth.”
Some stock of companies with higher-than-average overseas sales exposure underperformed the broader market: Caterpillar slid 2.5%, Intel dropped 2.5% and Apple lost 2.4%. The VanEck Vectors Semiconductor ETF, which tracks the performance of major American chipmakers, fell 2%.
The president later added that Tuesday’s slump is “peanuts” compared to how much the market has climbed since his election and the importance of striking a favorable trade deal with China. Despite describing Tuesday’s stock market moves, Trump said he doesn’t pay attention to daily equity performance.
“The president’s objective always has been to get the right deal independently of when, or anything else like that. So, his objectives haven’t changed and if we don’t have a deal, he’s perfectly happy to continue with the tariffs,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told CNBC on Tuesday.
“I think it’s also important the president makes clear he’s under no time pressure to get it done,” Ross added. “Because otherwise there’s a tendency for the other side to say ‘[Trump] needs it for political reasons so we’ll give him a worse deal.’ He’s not going to play that game.”
The secretary added that he expects staff-level talks with China to continue, but that no high-level discussions are scheduled.
No deal “would be a pretty big shock. The markets are absolutely dead set this is going to happen. But it really depends on how the breakup happens,” said Ethan Harris, head of global economics research at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
“If there’s no skinny deal, but there’s a noisy ceasefire, it’s not the end of the world. But the market decided it’s pretty much a done deal,” he added. That’s why we think there’s going to be a deal.”
Washington and Beijing have been haggling over a “phase one” trade deal over the past several weeks, an effort seen by many investors as an attempt at a sort-of truce until the globe’s two largest economies can agree on a longer-term relationship.
Both sides have introduced tariffs on billions of dollars’ worth of imports as the disagreement escalated over the last year; additional U.S. tariffs are set to take effect on Dec. 15.
“Today’s session will hinge on the market’s interpretation of Trump’s overnight comments which concluded he has no deadline for a trade deal with China,” wrote Ian Lyngen, head of U.S. rate strategy at BMO Capital Markets.
“There are several potential reads of these remarks; the first of which would simply be to take them at face value and assume the trade war will be a semi-permanent facet of global commerce throughout next year,” Lyngen added. “There is also the very real probability he’s simply raising the stakes as a negotiating tactic.”
US President Donald Trump speaks during his meeting with Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at Winfield House, London on December 3, 2019.
NICHOLAS KAMM | AFP | Getty Images
Trump also ratcheted up economic barbs with French President Emmanuel Macron for comments he made disparaging NATO and the European country’s new digital-services tax, which was signed into law in July.
The French tax imposes a 3% tax on revenues tech companies generate in France, including targeted advertising and digital marketplaces. In response, the White House on Monday said it could impose duties of up to 100% on $2.4 billion in imports of French champagne, cheese and other luxury goods.
“Look, I’m not in love with those companies — Facebook and Google and all of them, Twitter. Though I guess I do well with Twitter,” Trump said from London. “But they’re our companies, they’re American companies. I want to tax those companies. They’re not going to be taxed by France.”
“I’m not going to let people take advantage of American companies. Because if anyone’s going to take advantage of the American companies it’s going to be us,” he added. The U.S. president has joined other world leaders in the U.K.’s capital city to mark the 70th anniversary of NATO.
The S&P 500 dropped 0.9% on Monday, its worst one-day performance since Oct. 8, while the Dow lost nearly 270 points. The Nasdaq closed down 1% on Monday. The previous session’s pullback was sparked by disappointing manufacturing data as well as renewed trade uncertainty between the U.S. and two South American partners.
Trump announced Monday the U.S. will restore steel and aluminum tariffs on imports from Brazil and Argentina. He also suggested the move was necessary because Brazil and Argentina had been “presiding over a massive devaluation of their currencies.” However, in recent months, both countries have been seeking to strengthen their respective currencies against the dollar.
French luxury stocks drop as Trump threatens heavy new tariffs
Matthew Lloyd | Getty Images
LVMH – which includes the brands Louis Vuitton and Hennessy – and Hermes each fell more than 2% following the announcement.
The move by the U.S. comes in retaliation to France’s implementation of a Digital Services Tax. Under the new tariffs, which may begin in late January, the U.S. Trade Representative could add levies up to 100% on around $2.4 billion imports from France.
“This would essentially double taxes on French companies and citizens with U.S. income,” Cowen said in a note to investors. “These tariffs would be in addition to the WTO-sanctioned October tariffs stemming from the Airbus subsidies that target ~$25B in European goods (mainly France, Spain, Germany and UK).”
“Once again, key French consumer/agricultural brands have been targeted including cheese and champagne,” Cowen said.
Verallia, the glass bottle maker for Dom Perignon and others, was also among the French stocks falling, as shares slipped more than 1%.
You can read the full list here of proposed tariffs on French imports.
– CNBC’s Gina Francolla contributed to this report.
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