The more you see them, the better you get at spotting the signs.
When Donald Trump belatedly acknowledged defeat two months after last year's US presidential election, some news reports zeroed in on a fundamental question: whether his speech had actually happened at all.
The dramatic proliferation of deepfakes – online imagery that can make anybody appear to do or say anything within the limits of one's imagination, cruelty, or cunning – has begun to undermine faith in our ability to discern reality.
According to one startup's estimate, the number of deepfake videos online jumped from 14,678 in 2019 to 145,277 by June of the following year. Last month, the FBI warned that "malicious actors" will likely deploy deepfakes in the US for foreign influence operations and criminal activity in the near future. Around the world, there are concerns the technology will increasingly become a source of disinformation, division, fraud and extortion.
When Myanmar's ruling junta recently posted a video of someone incriminating the country's detained civilian leader, it was widely dismissed as a deepfake. Last year, the Belgian prime minister's remarks linking COVID-19 to climate change turned out to be a deepfake, and Indian politician Manoj Tiwari's use of the technology for campaigning caused alarm. In Gabon, belief that a video of the country's ailing president was a deepfake triggered a national crisis in early 2019.
However, some say a more pressing issue is the increased vulnerability of non-public figures to online assault. Indian journalist Rana Ayyub has detailed attempts to silence her using deepfake pornography, for example.
Some argue the threat of the technology itself is overhyped – and that the real problem is that bad actors can now dismiss video evidence of wrongdoing by crying "deepfake" in the same way they might dismiss media reports that they dislike as "fake news."
Still, according to one report, technically-sophisticated, "tailored" deepfakes present a significant threat; these may be held in reserve for a key moment, like an election, to maximize impact. As of 2020 the estimated cost for the technology necessary to churn out a "state-of-the-art" deepfake was less than $30,000, according to the report.
The popularizing of the term "deepfakes" had a sordid origin in 2018. Calls to regulate or ban them have grown since then; related legislation has been proposed in the US, and in 2019 China made it a criminal offense to publish a deepfake without disclosure. Facebook said last year it would ban deepfakes that aren't parody or satire, and Twitter said it would ban deepfakes likely to cause harm.
It's been suggested that the best way to inoculate people against the danger of deepfakes is through exposure. A variety of efforts have been made to help the public understand what's at stake.
Last year, the creators of the popular American cartoon series "South Park" posted the viral video "Sassy Justice," which features deepfaked versions of Trump and Mark Zuckerberg. They explained in an interview that anxiety about deepfakes may have taken a back seat to pandemic-related fears, but the topic nonetheless merits demystifying.
For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:
- A growing awareness of deepfakes meant people were quickly able to spot bogus online profiles of "Amazon employees" bashing unions, according to this report – though a hyper-awareness of the technology could also lead people to stop believing in real media. (MIT Technology Review)
- The systems designed to help us detect deepfakes can be deceived, according to a recently-published study – by inserting "adversarial examples" into every video frame and tripping up machine learning models. (Science Daily)
- Authoritarian regimes can exploit cries of "deepfake." According to this opinion piece, claims of deepfakery and video manipulation are increasingly being used by the powerful to claim plausible deniability when incriminating footage surfaces. (Wired)
- It's easy to blame deepfakes for the proliferation of misinformation, but according to this opinion piece the technology is no more effective than more traditional means of lying creatively – like simply slapping a made-up quote onto someone's image and sharing it. (NiemanLab)
- A recently-published study found that one in three Singaporeans aware of deepfakes believe they've circulated deepfake content on social media, which they later learned was part of a hoax. (Science Daily)
- "It really makes you feel powerless." Deepfake pornography is ruining women's lives, according to this report, though a legal solution may be forthcoming. (MIT Technology Review)
- "A propaganda Pandora's box in the palm of every hand." Deepfake efforts remain relatively easily detected, according to this piece – but soon the same effects that once required hundreds of technicians and millions of dollars will be possible with a mobile phone. (Australian Strategic Policy Institute)
Scans show similar activity to what occurs when you think about yourself.
It's really remarkable how seriously we take the fortunes of fictional characters. We care what happens to the people that we know perfectly well are simply words on a page or a screen. That they exist only in a writer's—and then in our—imagination somehow makes little difference. The best fictional characters stay with us, and we miss them when their stories end. We're weird.
Scientists from Ohio State University have published a study that describes just what is going on in people's heads when they invest in fictional characters. According to lead author of the study Timothy Broom, "When they think about a favorite fictional character, it appears similar in one part of the brain as when they are thinking about themselves." It would seem what's going on is that we identify with these characters to the extent that we—at least somewhat—become them.
This kind of identification can impact our real lives, too. As the study notes, there are undoubtedly more educators in the world because of Robin Williams' Mr. Keating in "Dead Poets Society," more doctors thanks to Ellen Pompeo's Meredith Grey in "Grey's Anatomy," and more than a few attorneys who got the idea for their careers from Atticus Finch in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
The study is published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience.
Conducting research in Westeros
The researchers used characters from HBO's "Game of Thrones": Bronn, Catelyn Stark, Cersei Lannister, Davos Seaworth, Jaime Lannister, Jon Snow, Petyr Baelish, Sandor Clegane, and Ygritte. They chose the series due to its massive popularity and because the personalities of its characters were diverse enough that participants in the study would be more likely to find one they identified with.
The study took place over the course of GoT's seventh season. There were 19 participants in the study, all fans of the show, ranging in age from 18-37 years with a median age of 24. Ten were female, nine male, and all were right-handed and deemed to be good fMRI candidates — an fMRI shows changes in blood flow that indicate activity.
This is your brain on fiction
Credit: Judeus Samson/Unsplash
The study had two phases.
First, participants responded to questions asked in two well-regarded questionnaires: the interpersonal reactivity index (IRI) and the Transportability Scale. They were asked to rate their level of agreement with statements such as, "I really get involved in the feelings of the characters in a novel."
Next, each participant's brain was scanned in a functional neuroimaging (fMRI) device as they were shown a series of names: their own, any of nine pre-selected personal friends, or a Thrones character. Beneath each name was a descriptor such as "smart," "trustworthy," "lonely," or "sad," and the individual was asked to state whether the attribute was applicable by saying "yes" or "no."
The researchers were most interested in activity in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vMPFC). It's known from previous research that when we think of ourselves, activity in the vMPFC increases.
As the researchers predicted, those with lower scores on the IRI and Transportability Scale had the greatest activity in the vMPFC when they thought about themselves, somewhat less when they thought about their friends, and the least activity of all when they thought about the characters.
On the other hand, people with higher tests scores—those who had reported that they often identified with fictional characters—were seen as having higher levels of activity in the vMPFC than other participants when they were considering the characters, especially when they were thinking about characters they liked or related to.
Co-author of the study Dylan Wanger suggests that our identification with fictional characters may be a kind of pleasurable role-playing: "For some people, fiction is a chance to take on new identities, to see worlds though others' eyes and return from those experiences changed."
"What previous studies have found," Wanger says, "is that when people experience stories as if they were one of the characters, a connection is made with that character, and the character becomes intwined with the self. In our study, we see evidence of that in their brains."
Remedies must honor the complex social dynamics of adolescence.
- Bullies are likely to be friends according to new research published in the American Journal of Sociology.
- The researchers write that complex social dynamics among adolescents allow the conditions for intragroup dominance.
- The team uses the concept of "frenemies" to describe the relationship between many bullies and victims.
Where do your enemies come from? That's the topic of a new article published in the American Journal of Sociology, which investigates school bullying, a social phenomenon that affects millions of children every year. Despite the belief that bullies are existential foes, it turns out that the bully and bullied are likely to be friends—at least, "frenemies."
Looking at 14 middle and high schools at two points in the year, the research team of Robert Faris, Diane Felmlee, and Cassie McMillan concluded that social proximity is not enough of a reason to abandon status elevation. Kids often climb over those closest to them in order to acquire greater standing in their networks—a power play that has adverse mental health effects on the bullied.
Their analysis began by comparing two parallel cohorts that create linear dominance hierarchies: chickens and summer campers. This game of dominance and ritualized submission is apparent in the barnyard and by the forest lake, as well as in high school, places where "overt aggression is not the only means by which status is attained." Prom queens, they note, "do not fight their way to their thrones." Subtler forms of bullying are often recruited.
Common wisdom has it that balance theory—the idea that enemies and friends share distinct social spaces—defines much of adolescent posturing. Not so, says this team: positive and negative ties are not as far apart as you might imagine. That's where the concept of "frenemies" comes in. Cruelty is a strange bonding tool that serves the purpose of status elevation, at least for the bully.
"In contrast to both balance theory and much of the empirical literature on bullying, which concludes that victims are isolated or marginal and thus sit at relatively large social distances from their tormentors, we extend the logic of instrumental aggression to anticipate higher rates of aggression at low social distances, between friends and among structurally equivalent schoolmates."
School Bullying: Are We Taking the Wrong Approach?
Femlee, a sociology professor at Penn State, says her study offers important insights into why bullying occurs—and, potentially, leaves clues for how to combat it. Her team found peer aggression to be much higher among students that are proximal to one another, either through friendship or social circles. Bullying does not end friendships, she says; they persist over the long-term, with the bullied maintaining ties to their tormentors.
Looking at a data set of over 3,000 students—at least half were either bullier or victim—the researchers asked students to choose five classmates that had been mean to them, then analyzed these networks while racking levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. As one student remarked, "Sometimes your own friends bully you. I don't understand why, why my friends do this to me."
Femlee elaborates on the complex dynamics of adolescence:
"These conflicts likely arise between young people who are eyeing the same spot on the team, club, or vying for the same best friend or romantic partner. Those who are closely linked in the school social network are apt to encounter situations in which they are rivals for identical positions and social ties."
Photo: motortion / Adobe Stock
They note that strained friendships are more likely to produce dominance behavior and power differentials than close ties. Punching down is common, especially between students of the same gender, race, and grade. The race for recognition seems to necessitate close racial and gender ties. "Frenemies" usually result from one member of a group victimizing another in an attempt at clawing their way to the top of the network.
This competition can have lifelong effects, such as reducing the bullied's chances of developing intimate relationships. The authors note that most bullying prevention programs fail becuase, in part, "aggressive behavior accrues social rewards and does so to a degree that leads some to betray their closest friends."
Such programs tend to focus on a fraction of bullying dynamics, such as empathy deficits and emotional dysregulation. They fail to take into account the complex social dynamics of being a teenager. The authors believe coopting status contents and changing the behavior of high-status youths could have downline effects. Instead of dismantling hierarchies, they recommend recognizing status is intrinsic to group fitness instead of pretending the struggle to the top is an aberration. Only then can you create structural change.
Friends, they conclude, can be the problem but also offer the solution. Aiming for enduring friendships instead of backstabbing frenemies is a tall order but it could impact the tragedy of bullying—and the emotional carnage it leaves in its wake.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
What can 'behaviorism' teach us about ourselves?
In recent years, such habitual actions have become an arena for self-improvement: bookshelves are saturated with bestsellers about 'life hacks', 'life design' and how to 'gamify' our long-term projects, promising everything from enhanced productivity to a healthier diet and huge fortunes. These guides vary in scientific accuracy, but they tend to depict habits as routines that follow a repeated sequence of behaviors, into which we can intervene to set ourselves on a more desirable track.
The problem is that this account has been bleached of much of its historical richness. Today's self-help books have in fact inherited a highly contingent version of habit – specifically, one that arises in the work of early 20th-century psychologists such as B F Skinner, Clark Hull, John B Watson and Ivan Pavlov. These thinkers are associated with behaviorism, an approach to psychology that prioritizes observable, stimulus-response reactions over the role of inner feelings or thoughts. The behaviorists defined habits in a narrow, individualistic sense; they believed that people were conditioned to respond automatically to certain cues, which produced repeated cycles of action and reward.
The behaviorist image of habit has since been updated in light of contemporary neuroscience. For example, the fact that the brain is plastic and changeable allows habits to inscribe themselves in our neural wiring over time by forming privileged connections between brain regions. The influence of behaviorism has enabled researchers to study habits quantitatively and rigorously. But it has also bequeathed a flattened notion of habit that overlooks the concept's wider philosophical implications.
Philosophers used to look at habits as ways of contemplating who we are, what it means to have faith, and why our daily routines reveal something about the world at large. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle uses the terms hexis and ethos – both translated today as 'habit' – to study stable qualities in people and things, especially regarding their morals and intellect. Hexis denotes the lasting characteristics of a person or thing, like the smoothness of a table or the kindness of a friend, which can guide our actions and emotions. A hexis is a characteristic, capacity or disposition that one 'owns'; its etymology is the Greek word ekhein, the term for ownership. For Aristotle, a person's character is ultimately a sum of their hexeis (plural).
An ethos, on the other hand, is what allows one to develop hexeis. It is both a way of life and the basic calibre of one's personality. Ethos is what gives rise to the essential principles that help to guide moral and intellectual development. Honing hexeis out of an ethos thus takes both time and practice. This version of habit fits with the tenor of ancient Greek philosophy, which often emphasized the cultivation of virtue as a path to the ethical life.
Millennia later, in medieval Christian Europe, Aristotle's hexis was Latinised into habitus. The translation tracks a shift away from the virtue ethics of the Ancients towards Christian morality, by which habit acquired distinctly divine connotations. In the middle ages, Christian ethics moved away from the idea of merely shaping one's moral dispositions, and proceeded instead from the belief that ethical character was handed down by God. In this way, the desired habitus should become entwined with the exercise of Christian virtue.
The great theologian Thomas Aquinas saw habit as a vital component of spiritual life. According to his Summa Theologica (1265-1274), habitus involved a rational choice, and led the true believer to a sense of faithful freedom. By contrast, Aquinas used consuetudo to refer to the habits we acquire that inhibit this freedom: the irreligious, quotidian routines that do not actively engage with faith. Consuetudo signifies mere association and regularity, whereas habitus conveys sincere thoughtfulness and consciousness of God. Consuetudo is also where we derive the terms 'custom' and 'costume' – a lineage which suggests that the medievals considered habit to extend beyond single individuals.
For the Enlightenment philosopher David Hume, these ancient and medieval interpretations of habit were far too limiting. Hume conceived of habit via what it empowers and enables us to do as human beings. He came to the conclusion that habit is the 'cement of the universe', which all 'operations of the mind … depend on'. For instance, we might throw a ball in the air and watch it rise and descend to Earth. By habit, we come to associate these actions and perceptions – the movement of our limb, the trajectory of the ball – in a way that eventually lets us grasp the relationship between cause and effect. Causality, for Hume, is little more than habitual association. Likewise language, music, relationships – any skills we use to transform experiences into something that's useful are built from habits, he believed. Habits are thus crucial instruments that enable us to navigate the world and to understand the principles by which it operates. For Hume, habit is nothing less than the 'great guide of human life'.
It's clear that we ought to see habits as more than mere routines, tendencies and ticks. They encompass our identities and ethics; they teach us how to practice our faiths; if Hume is to believed, they do no less than bind the world together. Seeing habits in this new-yet-old way requires a certain conceptual and historical about-face, but this U-turn offers much more than shallow self-help. It should show us that the things we do every day aren't just routines to be hacked, but windows through which we might glimpse who we truly are.
The study found that people who spoke the same language tended to be more closely related despite living far apart.
- Studies focusing on European genetics have found a strong correlation between geography and genetic variation.
- Looking toward India, a new study found a stronger correlation between gene variation and language as well as
- social structure.
- Understanding social and cultural influences can help expand our knowledge of gene flow through human history.
When we think about our ancestors, our minds tend to wander to geography. We introduce our progenitors by noting they were Norwegian, Brazilian, Indonesian, or members of an American Native tribe. Personal genetic tests, such as those offered by Ancestry and 23andMe, offer customers a travel log of their lineages' global journeys. And some of our more obvious phenotypic markers, such as hair and skin color, evolved in relationship with the lands our ancestors called home.
Lost within this land-locked focus is the fact that social and cultural factors—how our ancestors cohabitated and interacted with each other—also influence gene flow. In doing so, these factors shaped our evolution and genetic diversity. As a new study has found, for the peoples of the Indian subcontinent, such social and cultural factors may be more important to their genetic variation than the deserts, grasslands, and tropical forests between them.
A new kind of mother tongue
A map showing the locations of 33 Indian populations alongside plot graphs showing the relations between sociolinguistic groups and genetic structures.
The new study, published in Molecular Biology and Evolution, began when Aritra Bose, who earned his doctorate at Purdue in genetics and data science, was researching the close ties between genes and geography in Europe. Originally from Calcutta, India, Bose wondered if such a strong link would be true of his home country. He teamed up with Peristera Paschou, a population geneticist and associate professor of biological sciences at Purdue University, and Petros Drineas, associate head of Purdue's Department of Computer Science, to find out.
"Our genome carries the signature of our ancestors, and the genetic structure of modern populations has been shaped by the forces of evolution. What we are looking for is what led different groups of people to come together and what drove them apart," Paschou, who led the study with Drineas, said in a press release. "To understand the genetics of human populations, we created a model that allows us to consider jointly many different factors that may have shaped genetics."
The researchers developed a computer model called COGG (Correlation Optimization of Genetics and Geodemographics) to analyze population genetic substructure. They then feed COGG a dataset featuring 981 individuals from 90 Indian groups, further merging that with a dataset of 1,323 individuals from 50 Eurasian populations. The model crunched the numbers and found something surprising.
Studies looking at European populations have typically found a strong correlation between genotype and geography. As one National Geographic writer put it when discussing a study published in Nature: "The result was startling—the genetic and geopolitical maps of Europe overlap to a remarkable degree. On the two-dimensional genetic map, you can make out Italy's boot and the Iberian peninsula [sic] where Spain and Portugal sit. The Scandinavian countries appear in the right order and in the south-east, Cyprus sits distinctly off the 'coast' of Greece."
Such a confluence of the geo and the genome was not found in the India study; in fact, the analysis showed a weak correlation between genotype and geography. Instead, it was shared language that proved the major genetic link.
The researchers found that people who speak the same language were much more likely to be closely related, regardless of where they lived on the subcontinent. For example, their analysis showed that Indo-European and Dravidian speakers shared genetic drift with Europeans, while Tibeto-Burman speaking tribes shared it with East Asians.
Social structure also showed a stronger correlation than geography in their analysis. The researchers hypothesized this correlation originated from the social stratification imposed by India's caste system.
For several thousands of years, the caste system divided Hindus into hierarchical groups based on their karma (work) and dharma (duty). Marriage was strictly limited within one's caste, resulting in a long history of endogamy. Though the caste system was effectively expunged in 1950 by the Indian government, such endogamy held sway over Indian society long enough to have a powerful effect on the country's historic gene flow.
"Our results clearly show that endogamy and language families are pivotal in studying the genetic stratification of Indian populations," the researchers write in the study.
New dimensions for understanding ancestry
None of this is to say that geography played no part in the ancestral gene flow of India, nor that social and cultural factors didn't influence genotypes across Europe. They most certainly did. That Nature study, for example, discovered genetic clusters in Switzerland that were language-based. And Europe's geographic distribution may have more to do with historical sociopolitical realities than environmental ones.
The point of both studies, however, is not to tie our genetic history to land or language, but to understand how genes flowed throughout historical societies.
"It sheds light on how genetics work in our society," Bose said in the same release. "This is the first model that can take into account social, cultural, environmental and linguistic factors that shape the gene flow of populations. It helps us to understand what factors contribute to the genetic puzzle that is India. It disentangles the puzzle."
With an improved knowledge of historic gene flow, scientists may be able to further biomedical research to better detect rare genetic variants, assess individual risks to certain diseases, and predict which populations may be more or less susceptible to particular drugs. By opening the avenues we use to understand our genetic history, we can hopefully advance such knowledge and understanding.