At the conference, Chris Pinchen gave a keynote with the title "The fun, creative, anarchic use of digital media and the dilemmas they cause." Pinchen is an expert in online privacy and internet safety, and we interviewed him after his keynote. You can read the interview below.
Interview: The digital future is creative, social - and disinformed
When asked what we can expect from the future of manipulated video, imagery and sound, Chris Pinchen tells us "we can expect everything!" Today, the technologies and platforms that allow us create ‘fake' videos and images are accessible to everyone. We find ourselves in a time where politicians can be faked into appearing slow and drowsy or saying things they never said, and people on the other side of the planet can provide you with fake nudes of celebrities. What does this mean for all the children and young people, who are usually first in accessing new online phenomena and regularly manipulate and share videos and images?
Fakes and disinformation
"Deepfakes are technologically altered video and audio using algorithms," Pinchen explains. The deepfake phenomenon has been widely discussed in the media, but it represents only one of many ways to manipulate video, images and audio.
In your experience, what are some of the more popular ways of creating fakes?
"The typical way kids have access to manipulation of videos and images, is through things like Snapchat and TikTok," he says. These types of fakes are often referred to as ‘cheap fakes.' The more sophisticated deepfake content is a bit more complicated to create, but the technology to create it is completely accessible online and it is very easy to come upon deepfakes on the internet. Yet, he reminds us, "Disinformation is not necessarily spread the way people imagine it – like through deepfakes and super technological stuff. The most typical fakes people come across are ‘spam fakes' in their inbox. People are very worried about deepfakes, but the important thing really is the manipulation of information."
You have probably encountered spamfakes in your inbox. They are fraudulent messages, which claim that you can get free money or goods, sometimes in exchange for your credit card number, private address or phone number.
"A lot of parents are worried about kids being online," Pinchen states. "The interesting thing about that is, you see how kids and young people have a fundamental understanding of constructions of film, because they do it themselves," he argues. "That gives them great tools of understanding how fakes are done, because they have a kind of literacy of how video and images are constructed. Adults do not have this, because they are not as used to using these tools."
Creativity in everyone's pocket
While there are many pitfalls of the accessibility of video and audio manipulation, it is important to shed light on some of the more positive outcomes of this development.
"What has happened since the smartphone and since the development of the specific programmes on the smartphone, you can really see how people have been given the opportunity to creatively express themselves, within the confines and technical capabilities of the platform. People find incredibly creative ways to do that."
Pinchen explains how platforms like TikTok, Snapchat or YouTube have given voice and power to creativity. Earlier, at the conference, he showed a TikTok video, where a young girl used the platform to organise school strikes. Another video shows how a US teen hid a video criticising China's treatment of Uighur Muslims under the guise of a makeup tutorial.
"People use the popularity and simplicity of the platform – it's on your phone and it's simple – and it's allowing them this creative ability. A lot of the videos are the same, and a lot of them are just someone participating in a meme but, from the examples we saw, people are using it creatively."
In other words, while a lot of the content is perhaps inappropriate, not enlightening or just people recreating a particular dance, some young people use these platforms creatively and to reach their peers with important information. If you are a worried parent or work with kids, you should consider that all these platforms also act as a social meeting place for many kids and young people. "All these apps are doing is enhancing normal human interaction. People are inherently social. All the apps are just exploiting a facet of what humans do," Pinchen says.
Keeping this in mind, we should of course be critical towards the platforms and consider any privacy issues that may arise. "Then you have the issue of what all these companies do with the data they collect. They facilitate communication, but they are also learning, making money and selling the data," he explains.
Deepfakes destroy the notion of trust
Technology moves fast, and it is hard to even imagine what the future of fakes might look like. "TikTok is this year's platform, but next year it might be something else," Pinchen explains. "In general, we can expect everything from the world of audio, video and image manipulation. The technology to make entire deepfake avatars already exists." He tells us that you can actually encounter influencers on Instagram, who are not real people, but entirely fake.
During his keynote at the conference, as Pinchen walked us through a variety of fakes, he illustrated how some content can have a negative impact. In the world of deepfake porn, one of the newer technologies allows users to upload videos or photos of someone and create a full 3D avatar in order to interact with them. In the future, we may be subject to more and more disinformation, and it might be even more convincing and technologically sophisticated.
What are the consequences of AI driven fakes?
"It's hard to really pinpoint it," he says. "One of the big issues of deepfakes, I think, is that since the invention of cameras, videos and recorded images, we have had a tendency to say, that if something is caught on camera, it is evidence, it is proof that something has happened. The main effects of deepfakes is that it destroys the notion that we can trust the things that we see. And this is where education and digital literacy is so important. We need to show kids and young people the existence of disinformation."
How do we prepare kids and young people?
So how do we, as adults, prepare children and young people for a digital reality where disinformation exists?
According to Pinchen, it is important to engage in dialogue, listen and think critically.
"Even if young people are having difficulties on the internet, in my experience, they do not want to report it to parents, to teachers or to the cops. The reason they give is that those groups do not understand the nature of the internet culture that kids live in."
Pinchen stresses the importance of having "a dialogue, where adults look at the culture young people find themselves in, and look at the areas where you can help in terms of safety and privacy issues." In order to have that dialogue, you need basic knowledge and awareness of technology.
In his experience, parents are particularly lost when it comes to understanding their children's use of the internet. "Parents are scared of not having the knowledge, and they are in a world where they are expected to have the knowledge of these things, because they are parents."
"The other thing is listening – really listening to young people. Kids are doing all that stuff, but we need to understand what they are doing and how they go about using this stuff." Pinchen urges people who work with children and young people to utilise their digital skills and knowledge.
During his keynote at the conference, he stressed this point as well, and showed us a TikTok trend from 2019, where young people were reenacting big historical events by using the many tools of the app in creative and inspiring ways.
The last advice Pinchen provides is one of utmost importance in the world of disinformation. "The most important thing – if you talk about classical disinformation – is critical thinking," he argues. "Who is the source? Is the source reliable? The central tool of all we do is critical thinking. If an offer looks too good, it is! Technology is usually the least of your worries. Be aware, think critically!"
Chris Pinchen is an expert on privacy and security on the internet. He founded The Privacy Agency, where he works with surveillance, censorship, privacy issues and digital literacy, trying to help a wider audience. He lives in Luxembourg and works for their Safer Internet Centre, where he does school training, parents training and writes course materials. You can find all of his cases from the keynote at https://theprivacyagency.eu/from-adorable-deer-eyes-to-fake-nudes/.
Photo credit: Bjørn Enevoldsen