During a recent episode of WNYC’s On the Media (“Tunisia’s Twitter Revolution?”), foreign policy blogger Marc Lynch described how the advent of social media empowered the citizens of Tunisia to revolution by making it palpable and real: “In a sense, you almost have to see the images of other people braving the military, going out in the streets, before it even occurs to you to say, you know, I could do that, too.”
It occurred to me that just as video could empower citizens to act on behalf of a dissident group protesting a government, so too could government video compel those same citizens to different action (or inaction).
It’s long been the practice of authoritarian governments to plant representatives among the dissident population to act out in ways that discredits he dissident movement. The Tunisian government just engaged in this sort of action during the recent uprising.
Back in 2002, the US government was dropping leaflets in Afghanistan that clumsily asserted that Osama bin Laden had betrayed his supporters and retreated to living in the western world as a wealthy, well-dressed and mustachioed socialite.
As the cost of computer-generated animation and HD video production equipment continues to drop, it puts the option of creating highly-realistic videos that depict complete fabrications.
Conspiracy theorists be damned.
That power to create realistic video forgeries will soon be within the power of smaller governments, or even branches of government agents – to say nothing of individuals (if it isn’t already).
Even though such forgeries would eventually discredited with sophisticated computer analysis of the footage, it’s a very tantalizing prospect for many people. Too tantalizing.
Moral arguments aside, in the age of radical transparency that we now live in (where crowdsourced armies of citizen analysts can martial their efforts), attempting to use technology to create disinformation videos is utterly ill-advised. As all PR pros and the Nixon administration know, lying about something is often infinitely worse than owning up to the reality.
Assuming that the US government operates on the up-and-up (and even it has its lapses) it still makes one worry that, given the speed with which the US government is outsourcing its intelligence operations, a tangentially-connected department or contractor could engage in such an action – which would ultimately have disastrous effects on the image of the US abroad.
Here’s to hoping I’m just blowing smoke; I’m not confident that “truth will out” in time to avoid disastrous consequences, given the cutthroat competition in the news media to break news first which frequently sacrifices accuracy for sensation.