Down the Rabbit Hole with Deep Fakes

Do you know what a deep fake is? A workshop I attended defined a deep fake as “the alteration of images, videos, and audio files with the intent of maliciously deceiving an audience into thinking they are real.” Workshop participants watched in equal parts horror and fascination at the Jordan Peele sample of his audio spliced onto a video of President Obama. Other examples included faces transposed over videos of others, an animation of the Mona Lisa (a still image!), and a counterfeit audio clip created from a snippet of an original. In the workshop we discussed worst-case scenarios of people exacerbating public discord with fake videos and images or politicians dismissing real videos and audio by labeling them “phony.” Who will people trust? What institutions will have credibility? Will reality apathy and cynicism set in? Will student bullying and mental health issues increase with viral rumors evidenced with supposed video and audio?

Many educators were so horrified by the possibilities of this emerging technology they didn’t even want to mention it to their students for fear of injecting these malicious ideas into their devious minds. But what does this say about us if we assume students and people, in general, are going to use these digital tools for debased purposes? Why do we have so much fear and paranoia?

I think part of the problem is that it is human nature to focus on the negative. How many of us forget all the people who smiled at us or said beautiful things but remember the rude, obnoxious individual? If you’re like me, you remember everything you did wrong and not much you did right. Part of this is constructive to improve what needs to get better, but the key is not to slide down the slope to cynicism. If we react to change by trying to ignore, ban, or censor it, what kind of model are we setting for our students?

The same workshop showed an image of students at a museum in front of a painting all on their cellphones. My first reaction was gloomy, as in, “These students don’t appreciate art; they are too busy posting on Instagram and texting.” The instructor pointed out the students were posting about the artwork using an app downloaded from the museum. I had to step back from my Luddite reaction and shove away the relentless headlines about social media addiction and the current state of democracy. We want our students to reflect on what they read, view, and share. A lot of the fake news’ effectiveness relies on people’s gut reactions; good digital citizenship depends on individuals’ reflecting and analyzing what they encounter online before they share and act on it.

Early this year, I was lamenting how the job of educators was much more comfortable in the past because we didn’t have to worry if the information was fabricated, biased, or misguided. Someone pushed back on my comment by pointing out how many voices and perspectives were left out of the national conversation in the past. She is right. Headlines abound about people living in bubbles, but I bet that does not compare to the silos of years ago when the news was easy to control and people never thought about the lives of anyone else outside their community. Now we confront one another.

So today’s world is more democratic and more complicated. It’s harder to teach students how to do effective research and critically analyze what they read and see. It’s more challenging but also more exciting. Think of all the cool projects students can create by transforming historical images or videos with contemporary multimedia. Think about how their understanding of everything can advance because of the multitudes of resources at their fingertips. Think of our essential role as school librarians in teaching students to collaborate, reflect, problem-solve, and question the validity of online information. We have to see the possibilities that technology gives us as educators and how it transforms student learning for the better. So instead of presuming the worst of students and ourselves, let’s expect the best.

I’m ready to create and problem-solve. I’m ready to smile.


Author: Leanne Ellis

I am a School Library Coordinator for the New York City Department of Education’s Department of Library Services. I plan and deliver workshops, provide on-site instructional and program support to school librarians, coordinate programs, administer grants, and am program coordinator for MyLibraryNYC, a program administered with our three public library systems.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models, Technology

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