How are we to know what is real, on the internet? When a faked photo of an explosion near the Pentagon briefly spooked Wall Street this spring, it was the first major case of a viral AI-generated image moving the market. The hoax wilted under scrutiny, but to many, it seemed like a harbinger of far worse to come.
And yet, when Walter Scheirer, a computer scientist and media forensics expert at the University of Notre Dame, sent his students to scour the internet for examples of AI-doctored videos, what they brought back surprised him. It was, he says, “memes all the way down.”
So far, the majority of convincing deepfakes seem to be those engineered to generate a knowing chuckle rather than an economic collapse: fake Tom Cruise talking about hand-washing; Nicholas Cage in every movie ever; Joe Biden, Donald Trump, and Barack Obama playing Call of Duty together. The internet, Scheirer concluded, is indeed overflowing with fake content, but the vast majority of it seems aimed at the creation of connection—rather than destruction.
Scheirer and the internet grew up in tandem. An older millennial, he describes his first computer as “primitive”—a Texas Instruments box that hooked up to the family TV. In middle school, he began hanging out in Internet Relay Chat hacker channels, rubbing virtual shoulders with the cyberpunk renegades of the early computer underground. Even then, he says, hackers loved twisting science facts and fiction together, for the craft of it.
In his new book, A History of Fake Things on the Internet, published this month, Scheirer argues that today’s deepfakes are best understood in this spirit—and are, in many ways, the digital stepchildren of 18th-century satire, Victorian spirit photography, and other (very) pre-internet traditions of parody and imagination. In a recent conversation, Scheirer told me he has come to see the preponderance of fake things on the internet not as a radical and terrifying departure from civil norms, but as a wholly natural evolution of our human drive for mythmaking and storytelling.
Where do you draw the line between a harmless fake and a dangerously deceptive one?
One thing I came to appreciate more in writing this book is the value of parody and satire in human communication. This is a very old format for making a social critique, often used quite strategically. A really famous case which predates the internet is Jonathan Swift’s (1729) pamphlet, “A Modest Proposal.”
It’s about cannibalism, about eating babies and it’s really disturbing—but Swift isn’t actually talking about cannibalism; what he’s trying to do is make a social critique about the state of the poor in Ireland. If you’re reading critically and deeply, you make the connection right away and you probably find the transgressive, shocking nature of it funny in a dark way—and that’s of course what Swift intended.
But over the years, this pamphlet has been routinely misunderstood. Occasionally there are public readings of it, and even today people lose their minds—like, how in the world could we have people out there advocating for the consumption of babies?—which obviously misses the point. A lot of the internet is just like that. It’s awash in transgressive material that requires you to think a bit to get the message. The problem is, the feed-like nature of social media often causes us to stick to the surface-level message, so then you get these outcries.
What about deepfakes? Content that looks and sounds so real, it’s hard to detect, let alone refute. Is concern about those overblown too?
Yeah, it’s a question that’s been coming up recently. Deepfakes first appeared on the Internet in 2017, so it’s not a particularly new technology at this point. There was huge concern right away that you’d have videos appear in a political context that could change the course of an election or lead to political violence. But none of that has transpired.
We develop innovative new technologies and—surprise, surprise!—we use them to tell stories.
You write quite a bit about the computer underground in the 1990s and early 2000s. The way you tell it, even then people were blurring the line between fact and fiction online. Hackers were sharing technical information with each other, along with all kinds of creative rumors and jokes. You were a teenager then—how did you get drawn into this world?
I was always really interested in computers, but when I was in middle school, a friend of mine found some hacker textfiles—essentially creative writing zines produced by hackers—and was like, “Look, this is really interesting stuff!” and that’s when I realized there was this whole other world of computer use out there.
What was inside these files? Conspiratorial messages like, “Guess what the government’s really doing?”
All of that and more. Plenty of cheat codes for video games. But then it would dive deeper, like, Have you ever heard of the Unix operating system, that businesses and the government use? Well, here’s how to access it, here’s how to use it. And then you’d get the creative writing part. Along with classic conspiracy stories threaded in, lots of stuff about UFOs and paranormal activity that couldn’t possibly be true but was intriguing enough that you’d want to keep reading. I thought it was so cool to blend all these ideas together and I just needed more and more of it.
Did you yourself take part in any legendary hacking exploits? Anything you’d care to reveal?
I wish. I’ll give all the credit to the hackers who appear in my book. I was a bit younger.
Because there’s one story I wondered about. You write about a massive textfile that appeared online in 2012 and seems to document years of highly successful attacks against major corporate and government targets—deep penetration, the kind of stuff that could send someone to prison. You comment that to this day, no one knows who was behind it. Something about the way you phrased it made me wonder whether that was you.
[Laughter] So, you clearly identify with the anarchistic, “the internet wants to be free” mentality. But today you teach at Notre Dame, and your bio says you “promote technology development informed by Catholic social teaching.” Somehow I’m having a hard time putting those two things together: anti-authoritarian hacker, Catholic social thinker. Can you explain?
What connects them is the idea of community. The hackers were a really interesting subculture—a bunch of people who were connecting for the first time and who built something that endures. They went on to create the computer security industry. And Catholic social teaching is all about: How do we flourish in a communal sense? How do you build some notion of the common good?
And here’s a big connection: If you turn back the clock and look at the ideas that informed the construction of the internet we have today, a lot of it comes from Marshall McLuhan, the famous media theorist from the 1960s. He’s very much associated with the counterculture, but one fact that a lot of people don’t know is that he was a devout Catholic.
The internet is awash in transgressive material that requires you to think a bit to get the message.
I did not know that.
He converted to Catholicism, and he believed that the Catholic faith was the ultimate media system. Because you’re always in communion, right? With the saints, with people who have passed, and of course with God. They all come together through prayer and meditation—these forms of spirituality—and it’s fascinating to see how that idea trickles down into his thinking about the media. He was obsessed with the idea of uniting the entire planet through information networks.
Didn’t he write that in the end, we will become information? That sounds like some kind of cyber-transubstantiation.
That’s exactly right. Technology is kind of mysterious when you think about it, right? I don’t think that’s entirely a crazy idea. A lot of people are talking about emerging technologies in this way, as they try to grapple with AI—you know, is there some spiritual dimension to it? I think there’s something to that. All these technologies are forms of human creation, and in Christianity we’re called to co-create with God; He gave us this ability to create.
So you see the internet as an extension of the collective imagination of humanity. Rather than as market-driven technology designed to rationalize work, you see it as a vehicle for something more important: mythmaking. You write about the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’ idea that we live in two different realms at once: the real world, or the realm of truth, and the myth cycle. How does that concept apply to all of the strange things on the internet?
Lévi-Strauss’s insight was that the imagination is really useful for human survival but is discounted once you get to the 19th and 20th centuries. And yet, we’re still making up stories. Well, why? If you’re a perfectly rational person, you should want to optimize every aspect of your life. Why would you waste time telling stories and making things up? It’s not efficient. Especially here in the 21st century, it’s almost shocking to think daydreaming might be useful. Shouldn’t we just be working? But Lévi-Strauss argues that both ways of thinking are important, and they go hand in hand.
That’s interesting—because it can be tempting to wonder why we’re spending so much human energy constructing a simulated virtual world—trying to build a crappy copy of the creation online. But it seems to me that your point with Lévi-Strauss is that the internet is where our human drive to create myth lives. That maybe our sense of enchantment isn’t lost, but is sneaking back into this wild, inchoate frontier we created online. In which case, all those little memes are more significant than we think?
I firmly believe that. And it’s not terribly surprising when you look at culture through the centuries. We develop innovative new technologies and—surprise, surprise!—we use them to tell stories. I think that’s largely misunderstood.
I mean, what is the internet for? A lot of people would still say it’s the information superhighway; you go there to get facts and to get your work done—this corporate messaging that dates back to the dot-com era of the ’90s. But the internet was never really meant to be that; it was more McLuhan’s vision of a creative space where we can share the projections of our imaginations with others.
What connects hacking and Catholic social teaching is the idea of community.
This makes me think we’ve been talking with the wrong kind of people about the internet. Instead of tech gurus and cyber policy folks, we should be turning to psychoanalysts and anthropologists and theologians—to people who specialize in thinking about the stories we tell and our unconscious motivations for telling them. Sigmund Freud would be right at home online.
Yeah, just think about dreams. I mean, the internet, especially through these creative AI technologies, is like a dreamscape, right? It’s like, how much of human life is encoded in those A.I. hallucinations? I think there’s a lot of interesting work to be done there, but very few people are studying it.
Or something else I’ve been reading about—“resurrection deepfakes.” Chatbots or replicas of people who are no longer alive. There’s a genre begging for some deeper analysis.
Yeah, this is a big idea, that AI could actually bring people back. And it’s a longstanding idea, too—kind of like old “spirit photography,” which was popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Photographers were getting fancier in their special effects—yes, actually, it was possible to edit photos in a darkroom!—and discovered that if you exposed a film negative to light twice, you could actually get two different images. So you could have someone sit for a portrait and then expose the same film to an old photo of their long-lost loved one and in the double exposure, it would appear as this ghost-like apparition.
And now people are doing essentially the same thing with deepfakes, right? There’s this inclination to keep in touch with the dead—and I think McLuhan would probably be pretty happy with this.
You make me think that asking whether something on the internet is true or fake is in many ways beside the point. Not saying you condone unethical behavior. But one of your main points is that online fakes reveal more than they conceal, because they tell us something about ourselves. What are they saying?
What is the story, right? That’s the big thing a lot of social scientists are trying to find—a sweeping generalization to explain this whole phenomenon. But at the end of the day, it’s just telling stories. People just want to connect with other people. A lot of these media objects are for human connection. It’s like, I want to share something with you, I want you to understand something about me or my community.
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