People used to be cautioned about not believing everything they read in a newspaper. Newspapers … you remember those things? For the uninitiated, newspapers were these bundles delivered to people’s doorsteps. They usually consisted of black ink pressed into modified wood pulp for the purpose of transmitting information to a large swath of the general public.
They employed hundreds of people (probably thousands in the bigger American urban centers), reporters, editors, photographers, publishers, copy boys, not many copy girls in the day, and worked in tandem with truck drivers, distribution centers to ensure a morning and afternoon edition made their deadlines and made it to the street. When the afternoon edition was “put to bed,” the whole process started over again.
Thankfully, newspaper and print are hanging on. It is still the best media for long form investigative reporting and feature writing, and the very fact that a newspaper or magazine can’t be “instant” is a speed bump against rushing to judgment and getting one’s facts wrong.
But there looms an electronic wolf in the woods that newspapers and other print media cannot battle but one, consumers of news via the internet must guard themselves against.
When computer software programs like Photoshop first sprung up, it was easy to look at a tampered photograph and spot the counterfeit. But with every passing day, the photoshop techniques and software programs became more exact.
It was the difference between watching a 1950s sci-fi monster movie with stop-action animated giant lizard to the latest computer-generated image. Now it takes a little effort to identify what is a real, three-dimensional person or thing, and what is just a series of “ones” and “zeroes” that make up a computer program.
Not long after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a photo appeared on the internet. It seemed to show a tourist on the observation deck of one of the World Trade Center Towers. Over the unsuspecting tourist was an approaching American Airline jet.
The photo circulated as fast as the electrons in the ethernet cables could carry it. It certainly looked real. But before long, some armchair detectives with cooler heads proved it was just a piece of Photoshop magic.
Upon further review, they noticed the tourist was standing on the second tower that was struck, so no tourist would have been calmly posing on the observation deck on that tower when the one next door was engulfed in flames. The tourist is also bundled up for the cold with a watch cap and heavy jacket, but the weather on that awful September day in 2001 was mild and pleasant.
As photoshopping skills get more refined and newer software programs go online, the potential for harm increases exponentially. But photos that are not real going out to the general public pale in comparison to what is just on the social media horizon.
Before I finish typing the next sentence, there will probably be software to outmode the software I’m talking about. Things are moving fast in a scary direction as now, people with only a modicum of expertise can use a program to make a person say whatever they want them to say.
It’s already been done to some prominent people, who have seen themselves on social media spouting hateful things or stupid things aimed to harm their public images. This software can capture just about every sound a person of note may have uttered and turn those sounds into words.
And, it can also match the movement of the mouth to those words, so instead of looking like a bad dubbing job of a foreign language film, it certainly appears to be an image of a person saying things in their own voice. And when that person is a public person with a distinct speaking voice, the illusion is complete. The problem with this new technology is that even at this entry level, it is extremely hard to detect.
As with newspapers we aren’t supposed to believe our eyes, now we must keep a watch on our ears. We already have enough misinformation going on about our Catholic faith, whether it is a half quote or a misquote about the pope or some other calculated electronic sleight of hand.
Thank God that in his providence, the Lord has firmly installed Scripture and protected it with a Magisterium. What a gift we Catholics have and too often take for granted. For more than 500 years the world has witnessed “old school” manipulation of biblical words with the result being fractures upon fractures.