April 06, 2020
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The world would be a better place without politicians willfully spreading misinformation

Ben Margot | AP
Ben Margot | AP
In this July 1, 2019, file photo Hany Farid, a digital forensics expert at the University of California at Berkeley, studies a video clip of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in his office in Berkeley, California. Sophisticated phony videos called deepfakes have attracted attention as a possible threat to election integrity. But a bigger problem for the 2020 U.S. presidential contest may be “dumbfakes.”

Earlier this week, Republican Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona shared a photo of former President Barack Obama and current Iranian President Hassan Rouhani shaking hands.

“The world is a better place without these guys in power,” Gosar said when tweeting the photo, days after the U.S. killed a top Iranian military leader, Qassem Soleimani. But there were a few problems with the tweet, mainly that the image is fake.

Obama and Rouhani, though their governments, negotiated what is now an unraveled nuclear agreement, never met in person. The photo Gosar shared is actually a doctored image of Obama shaking hands with the former prime minister of India, with the Iranian president photoshopped in his place and colors of the Indian flag replaced with those closer to the Iranian flag.

Gosar has been met with deserved criticism, online and in the media. This is America, where we have great fortune and ability to debate freely and criticize leaders, but in that exchange of ideas and arguments, we should expect our elected officials to meet the very low bar of not sharing information and images they know to be false.

And in his response to the criticism, Gosar seems to indicate that he and his office knew the image wasn’t real.

“No one said this wasn’t photoshopped,” Gosar said in a later tweet. “No one said the president of Iran was dead. No one said Obama met with Rouhani in person.”

No one said those things, but the intent of the photo to mislead is obvious, despite Gosar’s attempts to dismiss it.

“The point remains to all but the dimmest: Obama coddled, appeased, nurtured and protected the worlds No. 1 sponsor of terror,” Gosar added on Twitter. “The world is better without Obama as president. The world will be better off without Rouhani.”

But Gosar himself seems to miss an important point: there are plenty of facts and real events that he could have used to make an argument about Obama’s record on Iran without employing a doctored, misleading photo with an initial tweet that was factually wrong (Rouhani remains in power as president, though he has never been Iran’s most powerful official).

Some people may be inclined to ask, “What’s the big deal here? Obama negotiated with the Iranians, who cares if he actually shook Rouhani’s hand?” Well, Gosar and whoever made the fake photo clearly care enough to make people think he did.

And more importantly, we need our representatives to be responsible stewards of information, perhaps now more than ever. The world watched this week as a torrent of Iran-related misinformation circulated online in real time as tensions and military action escalated. Thankfully, we don’t live in a country where those in power can manufacture “the truth” through state-controlled media, like Iran did when claiming 80 U.S. soldiers died in this week’s missile attack despite the U.S. reporting no casualties. But as we enjoy our freedoms, we should expect our elected officials to respect basic and irrefutable facts, even when making a political argument.

Doctored images and memes have become a powerful tool of misinformation and state propaganda, including in Iran. This ubiquity online isn’t an excuse for members of Congress to use their taxpayer-funded offices to blur the line between fact and Photoshop.

We should note that not all memes and doctured images are created equal. Americans need to be careful about not losing our minds over something obviously fake and relatively trivial like the president tweeting a photo of his face on Sylvester Stallone’s body. It’s the more nuanced fakeries, such as the photo Gosar promoted, and the misleading or incorrect details involving breaking news that people need to be aware of and approach with caution.

In a recent post, the Poynter Institute shared a guide from the International Fact-Checking Network that aims to help people identify fake images being shared on social media. Those steps include asking questions about the image, like when, where and by whom the photo was taken, to look for potential clues as to whether the image is real or not. The guide also encouraged people to look for signs of digital manipulation, such as inconsistent lighting, and to consider the context attached to a photo and whether someone may be using breaking news to spread disinformation.

Additionally, that guide highlighted several tools, such as a Google reverse image search, that help people track the online history of a photo and see if it’s real and not recycled from a different event in the past.

This fight against fake images and misinformation may seem separate from actual and ongoing events, but it has very real practical impacts as people use the internet to keep up with and understand the world around them. As Poynter previously outlined, fake images and outdated videos have been used recently to shape public opinion and debate in Turkey related to that country’s military strikes against the Kurds in Syria.

All of us, congressmen included, should be cognisant of these efforts to distort and misinform — and we should be fighting against them, not fueling them.

 


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