It’s almost shark season again, which is not to say the time of year when beaches close because of what could be lurking in the water and menacing swimmers, although that’s happening too. Instead, we’re referring to the outset of the Atlantic hurricane season. It’s only a matter of time before a community on the coast gets flooded and the rest of the world is fed an image of a shark swimming along Main Street or in someone’s backyard pool.
A few among us will doubt the photo — hopefully, at this point in the life of this particular hoax shark, many will question its authenticity — but a surprising number won’t give it a second thought before sharing it on Facebook or passing along a link to their friends. Such is the nature of the internet and the busy people who use it: Eyes deceive, misinformation spreads rapidly. It’s a pitfall we all could use more help managing.
The prevalence of phony internet images, whether they depict bears chasing people or chance encounters among famous figures who never actually met, should be well understood to everyone who creates a social media account these days. The duties of citizenship in a digital age include being savvy enough to question headlines and images that appear too good to be true. Both are easily manipulated by those who want to fool you or just make a fool of you.
But while plenty of tools can help internet users discern real from unreal the potential for subtle sleights, such as a facial expression altered or skin tone changed to make the healthy look sick, is so great that we’ll all be at sea with the sharks without a more automated way of flagging altered images.
There’s optimism in last month’s news that Adobe, the software giant, is at work with University of California researchers and Pentagon technologists to design a tool that “is capable of flagging, analyzing and even reversing facial manipulation in photographs,” as Fast Company reported. “And the group of organizations wants to make their program available for everyone.”
To be sure, Adobe’s widely used photo-editing software enables those who aim to deceive. The tech news site reports the new fake-spotting program is designed to peg these and similar deceits, although the tool is still early in its development.
Given the capacity of such images to troll our networked world — potentially even influencing our political decisions — we’d all be well served by a more reliable, widespread filter. Jesus Diaz, writing for Fast Company, suggests it could be too late: “There’s a major chance that image and sound manipulation could become so seamless that it will eventually be impossible to detect, even using other (artificial intelligence).” A solution to that, he suggests, may involve a coordinated system of watermarking real photos and videos, which would automatically filter out anything without a literal stamp of credibility.
The technology being pursued by Adobe and others would likely flag suspicious images -- or perhaps even correct them to undo what was altered.
Let’s hope it’s not too late to get in front of this problem, but let’s also hope that reinforcements arrive soon. Until then, everyone who browses the web would be well advised to consider the source and be cautious about what they see. And, when you see that photo of a live shark that’s made landfall in Texas, think again before sharing it with the rest of the world.
Looking for tools to help you tell the real from the unreal on the internet? Check with our online guide — www.eagletribune.com/fightfakenews — for a list of websites and resources that will help guide you.