January 2017

In my post yesterday advocating support of independent journalists now more than ever, I forgot to mention Talking Points Memo.

I’m a Prime member there, which just means I pay $50/year to read the same articles anyone can read for free, because the site is so good I want to support them. TPM has done sharp political reporting for a long time — they broke the U.S. attorneys firing scandal back in the George W. Bush administration — but they’ve really come into their own since the election of Donald Trump. In addition to their reporting, their commentary, especially from founder Josh Marshall, is spot-on. Two examples, just from today: He Xeroxed the Convention Speech and A Few Thoughts on Entering the Trump Era. Yes, I like them because they’re on my side (our side, I hope). TPM doesn’t pretend to neutrality: it’s a center-left political reporting site that hires really good investigative journalists, is aghast at the election of Trump, and intends to give its readers the tools they need to figure out what’s happening and to counter it.

Give it a try. If you like it too, I hope you’ll also become a paying subscriber. It’s cheap and they’re doing great work. Enough said.

I was corresponding with a friend recently about what one can do to help repair the damage. This is what I came up with:

1. Support independent journalists, and encourage others to do the same.

What we most need during the next four years is a lot of people digging around and uncovering stuff. Facts have not become wholly irrelevant yet. Facts are at least part of how groups of people construct narratives, and narrative momentum counts for a lot. Trump had it during the campaign, but he’s already entering office with record disapproval ratings. That means the right alternative narrative can take hold very easily; many people are looking for it already.

I support some great journalists on Patreon, and pledged to the City Bureau initial fundraising campaign. I’d love some tips — in the comments, please — on who you think is doing great work.

2. Join the ACLU and the EFF right now.

3. Tell your representatives you support financial transparency for Presidential candidates.

Legislatures (state legislatures, not just Congress!) can require financial transparency from Presidential candidates. If Trump can’t be on the ballot in some states in 2020 because they require release of tax returns and he won’t do it, that’s a fine and democratic outcome. It’s already required for some offices, just not for President. Several states are considering such bills; we should press for it everywhere. If it’s already being considered in your state, let your representatives know you support it. I’m trying to find out if anyone’s submitted a bill like this in my own state of Illinois. In the meantime, here’s California, New Mexico, Maine, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, and thank goodness for Ron Wyden in the U.S. Senate. These bills haven’t passed yet, but in some states they can. The one in the Senate probably won’t, of course, but the attempt to do so would be useful in raising awareness of the state-level efforts.

4. Support openly anti-Trump Republicans in their primaries.

If your district has competitive GOP primaries, support anti-Trump Republican politicians. It’s okay to be involved in a Republican primary even if you do not consider yourself a Republican. Political parties are not clubs, and political affiliation is not a kind of membership. By definition, any primary election in which you are qualified to vote is one in which you have the right to vote. Use it. You can vote for someone else in the general election, but please help responsible Republicans change their party’s direction, for everyone’s sake.

5. Send letters to GOP representatives of whom you are a constituent, letting them know when you are against Trump.

(You’ll have plenty of chances to do so, don’t worry.) Most of the country doesn’t like Trump already, and that includes a lot of Republicans. If GOP representatives start sensing that Trump is electorally dangerous, they’ll start opposing him too.

Update 2018-05-07: Please drop everything and just go watch this beautifully made deepfake video right now. If you do that, you don’t even have to read the rest of this post.

Update 2018-03-17: On Giorgio Patrini’s blog there is now an excellent co-authored post Commoditisation of AI, digital forgery and the end of trust: how we can fix it. It gives many examples — with pictures — from the bountiful cornucopia of forgeries headed our way from just a short distance in the future, and discusses some technical and social solutions for figuring out what and how to trust. Highly recommended.

Update 2018-02-04: See Rick Perlstein’s and Henry Farrell’s Op-Ed in the New York Times: Our Hackable Political Future. TL;DR: falsified video/audio of real people is here, and people aren’t ready for the implications. Anything you see on a screen isn’t evidence anymore.

Update 2017-01-19: After I wrote this post, I read Thomas B. Edsall’s excellent What Does Vladimir Putin See In Donald Trump? in the New York Times, and realized that faked kompromat against credible politicians who oppose Trump is even more likely than against Trump himself. So, er, watch out for that too. I can’t even describe how depressing that is to contemplate. Imagine, say, Tim Kaine’s or Cory Booker’s potential run in four years being headed off by a faked video of him accepting a bribe. The only countervailing forces I can think of are 1) good investigative journalism, and 2) the fact that fake kompromat still has to be believable to be effective — which is why Trump is so especially vulnerable to it.

I don’t think the Russian government installed Donald Trump as President — American elections aren’t that easy to control. But as Louis Pasteur allegedly said: “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Russia got lucky, but also knows how to play a good hand when dealt one.

What would you want right now if you were Vladimir Putin?

Something like this: a weakened, delegitimized, and more easily manipulated Donald Trump being sworn in as President on Friday. Ideally, a Donald Trump who does not necessarily think that whatever weakened him came from Russia, but who thinks that Russia might have worse stuff in the dumpster out back (worse stuff than lopsided business debts to state-affiliated Russian oligarchs, that is, which is what I’m guessing Trump has in his dumpster out back).

With rumors of video clips now already in public discussion, Russia — or really any party with access to skilled and discreet technical talent — is now in the perfect position to release a video tape of Donald Trump that shows whatever the heck they want.

The age of widespread faked kompromat has arrived.

Unfortunately, it will start with an ugly interim period in which realistic digital video is fakeable but most people still believe that video footage represents reality. The technology to produce convincing fake video and audio has not yet become available to the average computer user, so people aren’t yet accustomed to discounting what they see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears. (It’s just a matter of time; expect open source code modules for it pretty soon.) This weapon of misinformation is already available to any well-resourced state actor, however. Know anyone whom that description fits?

At any time, starting now, someone could leak a video that convincingly shows Donald Trump saying anything they want him to say (update 2017-07-18: they can fake it even better now). Or, as the case may be, they can show him doing anything they want to show him doing.

Will people think he really said or did those things? Ah, that’s the beauty of a politician like Trump: he’s so outrageous that people will believe anything about him, and he’s such a chronic liar that his own protests will not carry much weight even with his supporters. Denial’s difficult when you have no credibility.

It would be illogical not to take advantage of this opportunity; let us assume someone will behave logically. It doesn’t have to be Russia, but Russia has the right combination of access to technical skills, experience, motivation, comfort with this type of tactic, and reasons to be confident that those involved will never breathe a word of it to anyone on the outside.

The days right before or right after inauguration would be a good time to do it. Just sayin’.

I’m not sure there’s anything we can do about this, even if we know it’s coming sooner or later. Just sit back and enjoy the production values, I guess. Here in the U.S. that’s how we’ve often reacted to our military deployments, particular those involving laser-guided missiles and other high-tech things that go boom. Isn’t it time we learned to appreciate the subtler but no less exacting attention to detail required to produce high-quality fake kompromat?

This is not going to be fun :-(.