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.

Craft Book Recommendation: The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White

by Ruta Rimas

July is coming to an end and so the back-to-school sales are on. These dog days of summer seem the right time, then, to recommend a back-to-basics text, one that plants the roots of good writing: The Elements of Style. It’s an informative, straightforward writing manual from the grandfather of writing instruction, William Strunk, Jr., and updated by one of his former students, E.B. White. Yes, E.B. White, author of the children’s classic, Charlotte’s Web. The Elements of Style is generally used in college or upper-level English courses to instruct young writers on how to clearly communicate.

The fourth edition of the classic writing book.

Though it’s an introductory text, it’s invaluable to those of us who have been writing for a very long time, too. “Writing is hard, even for authors who do it all the time,” says Roger Angell in his introduction to the fourth edition. It’s true. Writing is hard, and it’s smart practice to remind ourselves of the basics.

In this slim volume, Strunk and White take us through the rules of rhetoric. It’s not a comprehensive text, but instead offers easy-to-understand rules of usage, principles of composition, commonly misused words and expressions, and a list of approaches to style. Strunk and White remind readers to embrace the Oxford comma, use the active voice, and put statements in the positive form. My favorite edict, one that I share with the writers I edit, is to Omit Needless Words (S&W consider one phrase, “the fact that,” to be particularly excruciating to encounter, and offer a chart with other options to use).

This thin and mighty reference allows us to reflect on our own writing.  Are our sentences convoluted, complicated, or overstuffed? Are we more in love with the purple of our prose rather than the information we are conveying or the purpose of the passage?  S&W value definite, specific, and concrete language (ex: “He showed satisfaction as he took possession of his well-earned reward” is vague and wordy; rewrite that in definite terms and you’ll have “He grinned as he pocketed the coin.”). Word choice matters. Sentence construction is important. Style and mechanics go hand in hand.

After reviewing The Elements of Style, pick up Charlotte’s Web. You’ll notice that E.B. White takes to heart all that Strunk taught him. His storytelling is clear, written with deliberate precision, utilizes varied sentence length, and is never overabundant in its descriptions.

Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White

Consider this excerpt, when Charlotte, a spider, begins weaving a new web to praise her pig-friend, Wilbur:

And so, talking to herself, the spider worked at her difficult task. When it was completed, she felt hungry. She ate a small bug that she had been saving. Then she slept.

Next morning, Wilbur arose and stood beneath the web. He breathed the morning air into his lungs. Drops of dew, catching the sun, made the web stand out clearly. When Lurvy arrived with breakfast, there was the handsome pig, and over him, woven neatly in block letters, was the word, “TERRIFIC.” Another miracle. (p.94)

Perhaps find inspiration from the book’s arachnid star who weaves simple words into her web to describe her porcine companion. One word, sometimes two, was all she needed. Maybe it’s what your writing needs, too.

Reading Like a Writer: Poetry Every Day

by Kristen Holt Browning

When the poet Lucie Brock-Broido died in March, I felt a pang of shame. I had never read her, even though throughout college and grad school, I read lots of poetry. Heck, my MA thesis focused on the poets Anne Carson, Louise Glück, and Jorie Graham. And before that, I wrote way more than my fair share of crappy adolescent poetry.

But…I graduated. I got a job. I moved to the city. I read novels, I kept up with The New Yorker. And poetry seemed so much less relevant to the everyday. Once my life expanded to encompass a husband, a house, and kids, there was even less space for poetry, which looked by then like a rarified, obtuse genre, suitable only for college campuses and late nights.

I stopped reading poetry around the same time I stopped writing. I realize now this was probably no coincidence. I stopped making time and space for poems, and without that hot language pouring into my mind, it seemed I stopped being able to produce my own words, too.

The day after Lucie Brock-Broido died, I bought her first book, Hunger. That night, before bed, I read the first poem, “Domestic Mysticism.” Actually, I read it four times in a row. Every time, my heart swelled against my ribs as I read the final lines:

Everyone knows an unworshipped woman will betray you.

There is always that promise, I like that. Kingdom of Kinesis.

Kingdom of Benevolent. I will betray as a god betrays,

With tenderheartedness. I’ve got this mystic streak in me.

Poetry can be intimidating, it can appear inscrutable. But for the last several weeks, almost every night, right before I go to sleep, I’ve read a single poem. Sometimes Brock-Broido, sometimes someone else (if I may plug a GetLit regular, I’ve also been reading Ruth Danon’s latest book, Word Has It). As it turns out, poetry doesn’t exist on some purely celestial plane; it fits quite well into a life already crammed full of deadlines, appointments, and PTA meetings. No time for a 500-page novel? Let me suggest you try “Parable” by Louise Glück tonight. Or, if you’re up for something a little longer, maybe Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” And don’t think that poetry has nothing to say about the political world of now: read Morgan Parker’s “If You Are Over Staying Woke” or Danez Smith’s “Two Movies” to see how poets are speaking poetic truth to political power.

As a writer, there’s  value in this practice: in my last moments of consciousness each night, I absorb pure, essential language. I like to think the words are burrowing into my mind, and supporting my own writing in some unknown, unseen way.

One poem, every night. Why not give it a try yourself? Whatever kind of writer you are, let poetry infiltrate and influence your relationship to language. Couldn’t all of our stories—hell, all of our lives—use a little more poetry?

Reading Like A Writer: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

By Kristen Holt Browning

My inaugural post for Get Lit Beacon is the first in a series I’m calling “Reading Like A Writer.” Each month, I’ll briefly discuss a book of fiction or poetry that I’ve just read—but rather than a traditional book review, I’ll share my thoughts on what I learned from this book as a writer myself.

So, on to Meg Wolitzer’s The Female Persuasion.

I admire Wolitzer for situating “women’s issues” as the central theme of a large, ambitious novel. Although, unlike Wolitzer, I write short works—stories, poems, essays—like her I’m primarily interested in writing stories about women. Even in a shorter work, I want the experiences of my female characters and subjects to be central, not secondary, and to resonate as big, essential narratives that speak to and reflect the world.

This novel covers feminism, ambition, idealism, money, sexuality, aging, death and grief, and generational divides. The story centers on Greer (a college freshman when we meet her, a celebrated 31-year-old author by the novel’s end). Wolitzer uses this focus character from which to dive deeply into the lives of Cory (Greer’s boyfriend, who suffers a massive tragedy that throws his life off its comfortable course), Zee (Greer’s best friend, who stumbles through jobs and a variety of activisms before she finds meaningful work), and Faith (a star of second-wave feminism who runs a foundation financed by a venture capitalist, and struggles to balance her activism with her funder’s bottom line).

As a writer, I’m impressed by Wolitzer’s ability to not only trace, but delve deeply into, the storylines of all of her characters, each of whom have full storylines of their own, beyond their relationships to the central character of Greer. Wolitzer clearly cares about all of her characters, and believes they each deserve a full story. And, she trusts herself to write a wide variety of characters: young and old, male and female, straight and queer.

We may write in different forms, but Meg Wolitzer provides an excellent roadmap for writing women’s stories as the complex, essential narratives they are.