Lee McIntyre: Post-Truth & the Perfect Fraud of Deepfake Video

By Flora Stadler

I remember once, back when I was a Very Serious Poet recently graduated from liberal arts college, I was talking to my mother about graduate school and she asked if I would consider journalism.

“That’s also writing,” she’d said.

“It’s not the same thing at all,” I replied, all righteous.

But 10 years later—after falling into a job as an editor at a local magazine and becoming a true believer in the connection between news and democracy—I did go to graduate school for journalism. There, I got an unexpected education in media literacy: I learned not only hsow to report news, but how to consume it—how to understand the sometimes subtle difference between fact and implication, the importance of source, the way language and even statistics can be manipulated.

But nothing could’ve prepared me for where we are now. News media, social media—it’s overwhelming and, honestly, discouraging.

In this bloody election cycle, I’m going to fall back on reporting and bring some nonfiction focus into the Get Lit online salon. I need truth to counter this confusing, divisive and downright Orwellian time, as we learn to consume new forms of media responsibly in the age of post-truth politics.

In my quest to separate facts from alternative facts, I found the refreshingly straightforward Lee McIntyre, Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and author of Post-Truth, a very good (and kind of scary) book examining the path that led us here, and how we can tread carefully on it.

McIntyre isn’t just a nonfiction author. He also had interesting things to say about his fiction writing, a genre he described as “ethical thriller,” and how it impacted his work on this book: “Quite a number of philosophers read mysteries, all the way back to Wittgenstein. And one day, I was reading [John] Grisham and I thought, ‘I can do this, how hard can it be?’ It’s very hard, very hard indeed. But it’s made me better at writing nonfiction because some of the techniques used in fiction, like show don’t tell, really work in nonfiction. Sometimes what’s the most persuasive is to tell somebody a story. So Post-Truth would’ve been a very different book if I hadn’t written fiction… I had to tell a story that made sense in the overall arc of the argument.”

But let’s get to the juicy nonfiction, and to the root of my question:

Since you’ve written the book Post-Truth, what’s the one thing you’re seeing now that worries you most, and what should we be doing as news/social media producers and consumers to mitigate it?

“The most common question I get is, ‘Where do we go now? What can we do next?’ In order to answer the question, you have to play the ball where it lies, and it’s a slightly different place right now than it was when I turned in the manuscript for the book [in May 2017].

By far, the thing that I’m the most worried about is the extent to which post-truth is a precursor for an authoritarian government. We’re seeing more and more that lying by public officials—not just in the U.S., but in other countries—is a precursor for oppression and silencing of journalists and, in some cases, violence against journalists. Political leaders do that when they’re getting ready to take over, getting ready to accrete more power, and they want to shut up the truth-tellers.

The reason I’m more worried about this than I was a year-and-a-half ago is not only that political events have changed, but fake news has changed. At the time I wrote Post-Truth, the main kind of fake news we were concerned with was the type that was being produced in Russian troll farms and other places, that were these naked attempts to try to insert false stories into the news stream and get us to believe them. That still exists, but now Trump is making false accusations of fake news against legitimate news organizations, which can have a kind of ricochet effect.

And with the technological advances, it’s now possible to produce audio and audiovisual fake news. There’s a company called Lyrebird that has a very legitimate business: What they try to do is take a one-minute audio sample and use that to create a vocal dictionary. So they put it through a speech synthesizer and get you to say anything you need to say. Now, if you’re Stephen Hawking, that’s a good thing. But if you’re someone trying to produce fake news, that’s a terrible thing, because you can use someone’s voice to try to get them to say whatever you need to say.

There’s another project out of Stanford, a video project called Face2Face. What they can do, which is straight out of Orwell, is take a person who’s being videotaped on a screen, put a mask on a person who’s standing just offstage, and through a technology called ‘face capture’ make the image that’s being projected on the screen conform to the facial expressions of the person wearing the face mask, rather than the person in the screen. In real time, they’ll be able to digitally alter the facial expression of the person who is giving the speech. When that happens, I don’t know what happens next. At that point, it may be that people are so cynical and demoralized that they think everything is fake. And that puts us at enormous risk for authoritarian rule.

I think the only thing that we can do is be aware that it exists. We were enormously behind the curve on text- and picture-based fake news, and it’s taken us two years to get to the level of public education and literacy where people are beginning to be skeptical about news. I think it will take that long or longer for people to get to a similar level of skepticism about the new technology, which is called Deepfake tech. It is so compelling that even if you know it’s fake, it appeals to a certain cognitive bias that we have in our brain, where we might enjoy watching it. I remember after the Parkland tragedy, there was a fake photo that went around of Emma González ripping the Constitution in half. It was completely Photoshopped and fake. The sad part of it is that even people who knew it was fake shared it and loved it. So just imagine what will happen when we can share audio and video. Even if it’s fake, it’s still going to appeal to that cognitive bias that we have.”

Lee McIntyre is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science at Boston University and ethics instructor at Harvard Extension School. His many wonderful books on truth, science and philosophy can be ordered at Binnacle Books in Beacon.

Tony Earley: Writing Past the Sucker Punch

By Flora Stadler


Most writers I know would say their relationship to writing is complicated. Periods of inspiration make the world feel as if it’s unfolding just for you. But inspiration comes when it wants, a lot like sadness. Tony Earley, author of the beautiful novel Jim the Boy, and its equally dazzling sequel The Blue Star, spoke with me about his own relationship to inspiration and sadness. Our conversation was more than a single question-and-answer, but the fundamental question was:

How does depression affect your writing process?

“What it’s turning out to be, if you look at my work, there’s usually a big gap in books and that’s due primarily to depressive episodes. So I’ll go through two to three years at a time and write very little. My writing is through windows of lucidity between bouts of depression. It feels exhilarating—’Wow, I’ve forgotten how much fun this is!’—and I remember why I started doing it.

My stories tend to be about wistful, sad people… I guess my characters are often kind of emotionally me, if not recognizably autobiographically me. I think when I first started writing about Jim, I just killed the father off—because my father wasn’t a great father and it wasn’t easy growing up in his house. But I replaced the father with the three really kind uncles. What I think I did was I wrote the childhood that I wished I’d had.

[The depression] always kind of sucker punches me, because when I come out of it and I’m writing and the writing’s going so well, I think, ‘OK, this time it’s going to last.’ It’s kind of sudden, but also it’s not something I realized that happened until I looked back at it in retrospect and thought, ‘Oh I’m starting to feel better.’ Until suddenly one day, I’m starting to write and my head is filled with ideas.

There’s this sort of narrow band of good level-ness, and whenever I can get into that band, that’s when I write. I tend not to write after I’ve published because I’m just so giddy, and I tend not to write when I’m depressed. I’ve come to accept that that’s just part of the deal, and at this point I don’t see any new deal coming, so I’m learning to accept that this is just the process. And if it means publishing a book every eight years instead of every three or four years, that’s just how it’s going to be. I wrote a story in July and it was the first fiction I’d written at all in two years. And during that two years, I still teach and I’m still a husband and a father, but I’m not an artist.

I sort of like talking about this in that if there’s a possibility that hearing my story might help somebody else—if there is a benefit to this, that’s the benefit. If there’s anyone who, for whatever ungodly reason, romanticizes depression in artists—that really hits me wrong. But I have good radar for fellow travelers, particularly students, and I’ll pull them aside and initiate a conversation and maybe help somebody else get farther down the road.”

Tony Earley is the Samuel Milton Professor of English at Vanderbilt University and the author of several books, including the story collections, Here We Are in Paradise and Mr. Tall, as well as the novels Jim the Boy and The Blue Star. His books can be ordered from Binnacle Books in Beacon.

I Used to be a Writer

By Flora Stadler

I’m a writer. That’s what I tell myself when I’m explaining a poem to my son or just editing copy at work. And when I’m buying groceries or cleaning the litterbox or reading Facebook on my phone, I think, “I’m not this, I’m a writer.”

I’ve been telling myself this for 30 years, but it’s never been less true than now.

I spent this summer not writing, which is the exact opposite of what I intended to do. In the meantime, I thought a lot about Kristen Holt-Browning’s spot-on post, Reading About Writing Doesn’t Count as Writing, and about the idea that “Writing isn’t a part of life. It is a life.” I wonder when writing stopped being my life, and why.

As my children got older and a bit more independent, I told myself that soon there would be more space for writing. So why have I filled that space with so many other things?

There was a time about two years ago when writing took up a lot more space in my life. I felt flooded with inspiration, fearless about the outcome, something close to a state of grace. I could pick at the details of a day and pull meaningful patterns from everywhere, I could find lyricism in everything. It didn’t even matter to me (much) if it was good—it felt good and made sense. I was just starting a novel then, flush with love for the first draft. But then it got hard.

If I’m honest, I think the uphill part of the job—editing and pulling all the pieces I’d made into a cohesive story arc—is what stopped me. After all, the first round of writing can be breathless fun. It’s the discipline of a polished draft that’s the real work, and I wonder if I have the stomach for it. Am I a writer because that’s how I see myself?

Am I not a writer because I’m lazy?

Even if you love it, writing is work. You have to want to be dragged out and exhausted by that work. I did at one time, but I’ve lost the plot. I often don’t feel smart enough to finish the story I’ve started. But I miss being a writer. And it’s not about wanting to tell myself that I’m one. I want that feeling of making the world new on the page.

I’m about 175 pages into a science fiction novel that I’ve built page by page, with characters I’ve come to love. I imagine them stuck mid-gesture, waiting for me to give them something to do. The thought fills me with dread.

Have you been here? What did you do? What’s the one thing that can start the gears, especially when those gears are rusty? What’s the one thing that brings you back, fires you up, fills you with that state of grace where creation comes without fear?

Marie Brennan: On Crushing Disappointment

By Flora Stadler

I was pretty far into adulthood before I realized that failure wasn’t my cue to slink off in shame from something. Learning feels like failure if you’re not comfortable making mistakes.

My late, great journalism professor William Serrin liked to jokingly say, “No indignity is too great.” For me, it meant you should dare to try and fail, to put yourself out there. You should dare to ask. “No” is nothing, and “Yes” is always possible. Keep looking for the yes.

So when I asked the very accomplished fantasy author and essayist Marie Brennan—a Harvard grad whose writing awards are too numerous to list here—if she would agree to an interview, I was thrilled to find the yes.

Her philosophy below is reflected in her popular Memoirs of Lady Trent series, following the adventures of a dragon naturalist who’s accomplished in her own right and doesn’t let fear of failure slow her down. You’ll find these and Brennan’s many other books at Indiebound.

Following the theme of failure and disappointment, I asked her:

What’s the one thing you’ve learned about failure, either in your personal life or your career, that has been the most useful to you?

“For a lot of people, failure looks like a wall. The end of the road. A sign that you should turn around and go back.

I see it as a hurdle.

Like many professional writers, I have a stack of rejection letters for my short stories and novels. Back before self-publishing became a viable option, there were basically two possible responses to those rejections. Walk away… or pick yourself up and try again. Try harder. Revise the story, or write a new one, a *better* one. Level up.

People talk about editors as ‘gatekeepers’ and mean the word negatively, but it also has its positive side. Having somebody say ‘not good enough yet’ isn’t a condemnation; it’s a challenge. I never got away from having an initial reaction of crushing disappointment—I still haven’t—but after that fades, my motto is ‘Oh yeah? Watch *this*.’

I love the fact that self-publishing has opened doors for so many people, and especially for stories that don’t fit the traditional market—but it can also let you get away with coasting. There’s nobody but yourself standing between you and the upload button. It’s a bit like lifting weights: if you only ever lift things that are easy for you, then you won’t gain much strength. It’s possible to be your own gatekeeper, of course, but it takes a lot of self-discipline, because it’s always tempting to say ‘eh, good enough.’

Whether it’s in writing or some other field, though, we all need hurdles. New obstacles, not to make ourselves stop, but to make us leap higher. Because the satisfaction when you clear that bar is tremendous, and so is the reward.”

Carol Anshaw: Not Wasting My Readers’ Time

By Flora Stadler

Carry the One

I read Carol Anshaw backward, starting with her latest book, Carry the One, a few years ago. In it, Anshaw (a novelist and painter) captures the way time shifts everything, how perspective changes like a trick of light. She shows that addiction and brilliance and beauty can all be contained in one person. I’ve thought a lot about it since, and wondered (as I do with books I love) how the writer managed to see it and build it. Then I recently read her 1992 novel Aquamarine, and I could see the seeds of similar themes. So when I got a chance to ask the author herself about her process, I wanted to know:

What’s the one thing you would say has changed most about your writing process in the decades since you began, and how would you compare that to your painting?

Carol Anshaw
Photo: John Reilly

“I was not a very promising writer at first. Maudlin story lines. Broad humor. Smart aleck tone. But I kept at it and got better. I am still capable of making bad sentences but I discovered a strength in revision. Dorothy Parker said that for every five words she wrote she changed seven. That’s pretty much my method. That’s the process that gets me to better sentences. Also, along the way of all these years, my subject matter got more nuanced as a result of an expanding world view, having seen more of people living life and how that works and doesn’t for them. I’ve also traveled a ton, and read two tons. Now I start out from a place of greater confidence and authority. Getting to The End is only half of the process for me. From there I shape the narrative. Compress, then put in more, then compress again. This makes for a dense sort of prose where everything counts, every scene is necessary (but hopefully not expected). I’m always thinking about not wasting my readers’ time or giving them something they feel they’ve seen before. I have a contract with them the minute they open the book.

As for my painting, it is also about making narratives. But I think where my obsessive tinkering helps my fiction, it might make my paintings too fussy. I’m working on developing a looser style. I’m still very much a student painter.”

You can find Carol Anshaw’s novels at Indiebound, and see her paintings here. Her latest novel, Right After the Weather, will be out next year.