Sitting before the stars and the stripes, in a fancy office, former president Barack Obama has an important announcement to make… except this isn’t actually Barack Obama.

Seeing is not always believing

“We’re entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time — even if they would never say those things,” says ‘Obama,’ his lips moving in perfect sync with his words as they become increasingly bizarre. “So, for instance, they could have me say things like, I don’t know, [Black Panther’s] Killmonger was right! Or, Ben Carson is in the sunken place! Or, how ‘bout this: simply, President Trump is a total and complete dipshit.”

If you’re still not clear what’s going on, Oscar-winning filmmaker Jordan Peele and BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, the filmmaker’s brother-in-law, have created a Public Service Announcement-style video to make people aware of what fake news is already capable of doing. Aided by sleek technological advancements and an unimaginable amount of data on their hands, the “baddies” can create an incredibly realistic and manipulative narrative.

Sure, you might say that if you look close enough, you can see the image trickery. You could argue that a careful listener would realize that’s not Obama’s voice. But think about it this way: how many of us are truly paying attention when we’re browsing social media? How many of us lend a critical eye to every video we see? Oh, and if this was created by a duo of people just as a stunt, imagine what an army of people with vast resources and concrete objectives would be able to do?

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What’s even more awesome — or, perhaps, even scarier — the fakery was built using readily available software: Adobe After Effects, which you can rent for just about $20 / month, and Fakeapp, an artificial intelligence program that made headlines earlier this year when it was used to transplant actor Nicolas Cage’s face into several movies in which he hadn’t appeared.

Here’s the plan

Okay, so what can we actually do? Fret not: ZME Science has you covered; we have a plan. Think about April Fools Day. Remember that feeling that every video you see and every cooky article you read on that day is potentially a prank? Remember everyone being just a little bit more careful on that day? How about we take that approach and use it every day? Just live your life like every day is April Fools!

But on a more serious note, we all need to employ a bit more critical thinking when browsing the web. We need to ask ourselves questions like:

  • Who posted this, and how reliable are they? Have they posted similar content? What do they usually post? When you find yourself on a website you don’t know, browse their previous articles and see if you can find a theme. Then think about that that theme implies.
  • Why did they post it? Are they a media outlet? Are they independent, or do they follow an agenda? Again, look for themes and patterns.
  • Are they transparent? When they say things, do they quote sources? Or do they tend to use blanket statements, without ever making it clear what the sources are?
  • Is this something that’s real, or is it just something I want to believe? We all tend to read the articles that agree with our views — that’s how we’re built. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking something’s right just because it agrees with your beliefs.
  • Can I double check it? If I search for the story, will I find it on other reliable outlets?
  • Can I see the big picture? Is this the right context, or are things taken out of context?
  • Lastly, is this something I should share? Do I believe this is reliable and want my friends to believe it as well?

These are challenging times, but we are the gatekeepers of real information — both to ourselves, and to our circle of friends.