A philosophical analysis of deception in the media.
Rewind twenty-odd years, and the news we saw was covered by well-established media outlets. Sure, what we read in newspapers wasn’t always 100% accurate. But these outlets abided by media regulation and legislation. When they deceived us, we were usually made aware of it.
But here in 2021, social media platforms have created a culture where anyone can contribute. We don’t get our information from newspapers anymore, we get it through word of mouth — and with enough agreement, we seem to accept anything. That’s why we’re so quick to believe viral news.
That’s a huge plus for free speech, but it leaves us much more susceptible to deception. There’s no accountability and a scarcity of regulations. We’re left to believe the lies we read, which rarely get acknowledged or corrected.
The “Tom Cruise Deep Fake” video is a reminder of that.
If you didn’t know different, you would assume you were watching Tom Cruise play golf or perform magic when you visited the Tik Tok channel @deeptomcruise. The reality, however, had nothing to do with Tom Cruise.
This stunt was the work of visual effects specialist Chris Ume, who used deep-fake technology — artificial intelligence which changed his appearance and made him look indistinguishable from the movie star. Performing a magic trick, this deep-fake of Cruise jokes:
“It’s the real thing”
This account is just a harmless joke. It’s quite open about being a fake. Ume created the account to illustrate the use and power of this modern technology. But with over 11 million views, I can’t help but wonder:
If I didn’t know this video was fake, would I have believed it?
A Generation Accustomed to Lies
Facebook, Tik Tok, Twitter, Instagram. The viral content on these platforms often play on two human traits:
1. The thought of something is often better than the real thing
Things are rarely as exciting and fun in reality as they are online. Life is pretty boring by comparison, and social media plays on that.
It’s why Gen Z obsess over Instagram filters, taking photos to make themselves look more attractive. And it’s why we’re quick to accept fake news, because the thought that something controversial has happened makes our lives much more exciting.
2. People prefer to hear things that match their pre-existing beliefs
Hearing something that challenges our pre-existing worldviews makes us uncomfortable. We are bombarded with information in the social world, and we can’t possibly process it all. With a limited time and capacity, we’re biased towards the information that protects our worldviews — and are more inclined to accept it over anything else.
As a member of Generation Z, I have grown up in a world where news and social media outlets are desperate for our attention. The more of it they have, the more ads we watch, the more money they make.
They play on these emotions, and the people of my generation are quite happy to accept obvious lies. Ignorance is bliss, right? Consider those that we experience in our daily lives:
- food adverts that use subtle techniques to make their food look better on TV than it actually is
- the brands using artificial intelligence models on Instagram to promote their clothes, and tricking us into thinking their real people
- and every smear or fake news campaign, against a politician or celebrity.
More often than not, we accept what we see. Young teenagers are basing their appearance on models who don’t even exist. We’re tempted to buy a Mcdonald's burger when we see it on TV, knowing full well it’s nothing like the pictures.
And, according to MIT studies, fake news spreads significantly faster than real news. It’s so much more exciting and “juicy,” after all.
You Should Doubt What You See More
Knowing what we know, it’s wise to adopt a similar approach to social media as René Descartes did to reality.
In his Meditations on First Philosophy, the 17th French Philosopher developed a thought experiment that made him question everything he saw:
Imagine an evil demon has come down to earth, and “employed all his energies in order to deceive me.” In short, he performs a spell to make me see reality differently from how it actually is. This evil demon could have tricked me into believing that a square has four sizes, or that 2+2=4 when it’s not actually the case.
Suppose this devil is making me see an illusion of reality. One that doesn’t actually exist. In fact, the sky might not even be blue, I might be being tricked into thinking it is.
Now that might sound absurd. But from our own viewpoint, it’s impossible to tell for sure whether you're seeing reality or being tricked by a devil. None of us can be certain about the external world — it could all be part of some grand delusion.
This led Descartes to embrace Cartesian Skepticism, where he questioned almost everything he knew.
“If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.” — Descartes
Lies and Truth are Indistinguishable
You might think Descartes’ conclusion is absurd, and I’m not telling you to doubt your reality. But his point is still applicable to our experiences online: more often than not, you can’t tell the difference between lies and truth in the things you read.
And as the Tom Cruise Deepfake shows, modern technology has made fake and real videos of people we know indistinguishable too.
At any given moment, you can’t be certain that you aren’t being deceived. Only this time, it’s the work of content creators desperate for more clicks, or politicians trying to smear their opponents, rather than an evil devil.
Like Descartes, we should doubt what we see more, and take the things on TV, social media, and online with a pinch of salt.
Because even your favorite Tom Cruise movie might not have him in.
Be Careful Out There
The scariest part of lies and deception is the consequences that come from them. Even when the truth is uncovered, the damage that’s caused often remains, and reputations are ruined forever. So the next time you see:
- a controversial smear campaign against a politician
- your favorite YouTuber accused of doing or tweeting something controversial
- a video of your favorite celebrity doing something out of character.
Remember this is not categorical proof that the alleged things happened. Even if thousands of people on Twitter take it as true. Be skeptical, and take things with a pinch of salt.
Just as importantly, remember that social media presents an ideological window into others' lives. People aren’t as attractive as their Instagram profiles, and their lives aren’t as glamorous as their Facebook feed. You should stop comparing your life, warts and all, to the things others present online.
If these deep fakes teach us anything, it’s that:
You can’t trust anything you see or hear in the media.
Ask yourself: why has this been put online? Could it be false? What are the long-term consequences for those involved?
It’s easier to trick you into believing something than ever before, and people are trying to exploit that. For clicks, attention, or something much worse.