Reputation managers have had to deal with fake news, but soon they also may have to contend with fake videos.
New technology makes it possible to doctor a video of someone speaking and literally put words into their mouth. The results can be quite convincing and put the speaker on the defensive for something he or she never said.
The proof of concept is the Synthesizing Obama project at the University of Washington. Researchers took video of the former President and edited audio from numerous speeches, which they lip-synched to give his speech a totally opposite meaning. Researchers at Stanford are experimenting with technology to modify facial expressions to make fake videos even more convincing. Adobe has software that can alter audio add totally new and fake phrases, mimicking a speaker’s voice.
With tools like that, mischief can’t be far behind.
Combine a malicious tool with the instantaneous combustion of social media and you have a reputation crisis on steroids created on a laptop in someone’s dank basement.
William Comcowich, who leads Glean.info that provides customized media monitoring, encourages companies, PR firms and the news media to “develop ways to detect altered videos.” Easier said than done.
Whitewashing away fake videos isn’t really possible, and would be foolish to try. (The concept of trying to bury bad news online with a spate of good news stories doesn’t have much merit to begin with.)
Short of some technological Sherlock Holmes or a forensic army, the best defense may be vigilance and documenting with video key speeches by principals. If you find a video of the boss on social media that doesn’t sound quite right, the best way to fight back is to produce a raw video of the actual speech, with verification that it is complete and unedited.
Comcowich notes that it is natural for people to trust what they see. However, that trust was undermined when people realized how images can be manipulated with tools such as Photoshop. That may eventually happen to video, but meanwhile fake videos can destroy a reputation and mischaracterize what actually happens at an event.
Think how the violence last weekend in Charlottesville might be reshaped in the hands of a creative video editor with a story to spin. Think how the alternative narrative of the tiki torch march was undone by embedded journalist Elle Reeve who had raw footage from the beginning to the end.
Dismissing fake videos are too difficult to make is burying your head in the sand. Just as sophisticated production boards have been made to fit on laptop keyboards, the tools to create videos will be in the hands of mischief makers sooner than you think. It’s not too soon to modify a crisis plan to account for
the advent of fake videos.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.