Project Fortress: A Defense Against Digital Deepfakes

January 2024

The threats posed by AI-enabled computer-generated deepfakes were, once upon a time, “crude, unconvincing and costly to produce,” as a recent PBS report observes. But that’s no longer the case. “AI tools can now create cloned human voices and hyper-realistic images, videos and audio in seconds, at minimal cost. When strapped to powerful social-media algorithms, this fake and digitally-created content can spread far and fast and target highly specific audiences.” The malign applications of these technologies are the stuff of nightmares: a hostile foreign power crafting deepfake versions of the president being shot or resigning or announcing America’s withdrawal from some frontline allied nation, governors calling on certain states to secede, the Treasury secretary questioning the soundness of the banking system, a general making racist remarks that divide the ranks, soldiers committing atrocities—any of these could trigger domestic unrest, international crises, even war.

We’ve seen glimpses of this sort of deepfake disinformation throughout Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine: In March 2022, just after Vladimir Putin unleashed his full-scale invasion, the Russian dictator’s backers generated a video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky apparently calling on his countrymen “to lay down your weapons.” In the months since then, Russia has generated deepfakes depicting Ukrainians staging mass-casualty attacks and producing “Wag the Dog”-type videos.

To survive the Disinformation Age, Americans must find a way to identify and navigate such deepfake attacks.

“There is nothing new under the sun,” scripture reminds us. Indeed, the ancients used deception to gain advantage—from Jacob’s fur-covered arms to the tale of the Trojan Horse sneak attack.

Closer to our time—and closer to the methods of our enemies—Stalin airbrushed his opponents out of pictures and doctored photographs to position himself as Lenin’s heir. Hitler concocted a fanciful tale about Poland mistreating ethnic Germans and claimed Poland invaded Germany. At the outset of the Cold War, NSC-68 warned that Moscow would target institutions “that touch most closely our material and moral strength”—including “media for influencing opinion”—in order to “make them sources of confusion in our economy, our culture and our body politic.”

As a Brookings report concludes, “Deceit and media manipulation have always been a part of wartime communications.” Underscoring the soundness of NSC-68’s warnings, the report recounts how the KGB disseminated false information claiming U.S. intelligence agencies played a role in the assassination of President Kennedy and how the KGB hatched a disinformation campaign blaming the U.S. government for the AIDS virus. What’s different in the era of deepfakes, Brookings explains, is that “never before has it been possible for nearly any actor in a conflict to generate realistic audio, video and text of their opponent’s political officials and military leaders”—and never so rapidly, so convincingly.

The Founders didn’t have an inkling about digital deepfakes. But they recognized the dangers of foreign interference. Madison worried about a “channel for foreign influence on the national councils.” Hamilton pointed to “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils.” Washington, in his farewell address, warned about “avenues to foreign influence…one of the most baneful foes of republican government.” He urged his countrymen “to be constantly awake” to foreign interference.

In addition, the Founders understood human nature and what humans—especially those in power—are prone to do if left unwatched and unchecked. Thus, the Founders crafted the First Amendment to empower a free press to keep the people informed, to keep an eye on government, to expose the truth. Madison concluded that the free press enabled “reason and humanity” to triumph “over error and oppression.” The central concern of Madison and his fellow Founders was our government, but these principles also apply to foreign governments—especially in a shrunken digital world.

A return to old-fashioned news reporting could serve as a weapon against deepfake deception—a sword to cut through our enemies’ lies: There’s great benefit from firsthand accounts by the foreign correspondent, the war reporter alongside frontline troops, the beat writer at the White House, the grizzled journalist snooping around Capitol Hill. Having real reporters reporting real news and documenting what’s really happening is an essential element to the health of a self-governing people—and an important weapon for exposing digital deepfakes. This isn’t an argument for media outlets playing the role of gatekeepers of information. Modern modes of information exchange, happily, allow for access to numerous sources of information. However, information isn’t necessarily fact or knowledge. And so, there’s an important place in our democratic republic for news reporting that confirms facts through multiple sources and uses information to produce knowledge. In an era when AI-generated deepfakes can perfectly mimic presidents, we need media outlets to report the news, to use words to describe events, to play the role of illuminators of information and identifiers of deception. In a sense, the pen isn’t just mightier than the sword—the pen is the sword.

But a return to old-fashioned reporting won’t be easy. First, recent decades have seen a rapid decline of U.S. newspapers and broadcasters with bureaus based in foreign capitals (see here, here and here). This has created a vacuum increasingly filled by secondhand news offering a pinhole’s worth of perspective—and clearing a path for deepfake deception.

Second, a trust deficit plagues media outlets. Just 21 percent of Americans express “high emotional trust” in national news organizations. “Only 26 percent of Americans have a favorable opinion of the news media.” To rebuild trust, media outlets need to return to their core mission, which is to report what they see, not pontificate on what they believe; and they need to do their job, which requires more than regurgitating government talking points or repackaging what’s being spread on social media.

Deploying reporters to confirm facts and report what’s happening, when it’s happening, where it’s happening isn’t a cure-all to deepfake deception. But having reporters on site means fewer mistakes caused by reporting someone else’s report; opens the way to telling the story, rather than repeating someone else’s version of the story; and positions the news outlet to be where news is actually happening, rather than receiving and replaying video about what’s happening—video that may be manipulated.

A similar principle applies to consumers of news. Citizens of a democratic republic—we the people—need to be engaged. That requires more than watching the world go by on Zoom. It requires showing up—getting out of the house to help a neighbor, attending a place of worship, voting in person, meeting elected officials or at least knowing their positions, participating in political town-hall meetings.

By quite literally engaging our senses, these and other forms of real-world interaction can serve as a safeguard against deepfake deception. There are benefits of authentic human interaction—and dangers that flow from replacing human interaction with the faux connections to which so many became accustomed during the COVID lockdowns. Man is not made to be walled off from his fellowman. We are made to be in community—to worship and work together, to help our neighbors, to be connected by something more than two-dimensional depictions of one another. Indeed, we are at the greatest risk of being manipulated when we are detached from the real world.

Isolation and disconnection have been shown to corrode our thinking skills—leaving us less than “awake,” to borrow Washington’s term—which plays into our enemies’ hands. In the Disinformation Age, critical thinking is a layer of defense—a shield against deepfake dangers.

Critical thinking always leads to questions: Why was this video recorded? Who recorded this video? Is there anything corroborating this video? What’s the source of this video? What do other sources say about this video? Who would benefit from this video? Is it possible this video is fabricated?

Critical thinking reminds us that seeing is not necessarily believing. In fact, seeing—if what we see is manipulated—can lead us away from what’s true. Deepfakes are, quite obviously, enemies of what’s true. What’s perhaps less obvious is that, by manipulating truth and creating alternate realities, these new technologies are forcing us to wrestle with age-old questions: What is real? What is truth?

Critical thinking challenges us to cross-check information, to venture beyond our narrowcast sources of news, to pull back from the echo chambers where so many of us—on both sides of the political spectrum—get our news and information.

Critical thinking, at its core, is about thinking—not images, impulse or instinct. But critical thinking is in short supply in the Disinformation Age. Our K-12 schools have failed to inculcate critical thinking for more than a generation. Our institutions of higher learning seem committed to telling students what to think (and what to say) rather than teaching students how to think—while smothering any deviations from lectern orthodoxy. Even our broader culture tends to punish rather than nurture critical thinking.

A contributing factor here is that Americans don’t read as much as they once did: Adults read less today than in decades past, and standardized tests reveal a cratering of reading levels among young Americans. Reading helps filter information and engages thinking in different, deeper ways than seeing images. Reading history, for instance, would remind Americans that we were a self-governing people—able to throw off an autocratic superpower, plant a republic, produce an Abraham Lincoln, extirpate our original sin of slavery, expand the circle of liberty, rescue mankind from fascism, feed the world, rebuild Europe and Japan, reach the moon, and defeat Leninism—all without Amazon or Zoom, Twitter or TikTok, YouTube or Instagram. In drifting away from critical thinking, we have left ourselves exposed to manipulation. The result of these trends is a society increasingly defenseless against deepfakes and disinformation.

Disinformation, at its heart, is an assault on truth. Just consider the words used in this essay to describe the Disinformation Age—fake, fabricated, deception, false, confusion, mimic, manipulated. All of these in some way represent a counterfeit of what is true. Truth is crucial to the health a free nation. Indeed, Americans have always believed freedom and truth are linked. Consider the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson devoted his most memorable lines to truth and liberty: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Or consider the First Amendment, which guarantees a free press to carry out fact-finding and truth-seeking. 

In an era warped by AI-generated deepfakes, it will become increasingly difficult to convey the facts of a situation—the truth about what’s happening. Our enemies will exploit this. And that will undermine the security of the United States: If Americans cannot agree on what is true, how can policymakers develop, build support for, and carry out policies that defend our nation and deter our enemies? The answer to this question and to this metastasizing threat of the Disinformation Age is not to try to put the technology genie back in the bottle (though software engineers are developing programs to detect deepfakes). At least part of the answer is to draw from the arsenal Americans have used to defend our freedom.

“A people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives,” Madison observed. Note his use of the word “arm.” Free people must defend themselves with knowledge, with a sword to cut through deception, with a shield to fend off lies. Without these weapons at the ready, Madison warned, our experiment in self-government is “a prologue to a farce or a tragedy, or perhaps both.”

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. A version of this essay was published in Providence.

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