Baranyai: Egotistical fakes discredit news organizations they imitate

5 min read

We are getting altogether too complacent about fake news.

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We are getting altogether too complacent about fake news. Manipulated images and videos are not just neat new editing tools with which to play, but historically effective propaganda tools, now with an AI glow-up. Yet, the more people abuse them, the less we seem to care.

Consider the recent contribution to political discourse by partisan video enthusiast and Manitoba MP Branden Leslie. On Facebook, the freshman parliamentarian released a four-and-a-half minute video set in the hypothetical near-future, in which he announces the resignation of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Leslie’s satirical headlines aren’t designed to fool anyone, but they’re ambiguously interwoven with real news footage. Fake video clips have been engineered to look like real CBC and CTV newscasts, mimicking their screen layouts, fonts, colours, logos, the works.

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In response to questions about his questionable judgment, Leslie was dismissive. “I don’t think anybody thinks that I’m the guy that’s going to break the news the prime minister has resigned,” he said, as though ignorant that images posted on social media can be lifted out of context. “I think Canadians are very smart.” More than one commenter on Leslie’s Facebook page said they’d been taken in by the headlines, but that’s not really the point. What’s worrisome is parliamentarians satirizing election news in the first place.

Earlier the same week, a strikingly parallel video was posted on Truth Social. While America’s four-times-indicted former president was on trial in New York, his account shared a video that included fake news headlines imagining a Trump presidential victory. It was removed after alert readers detected some ominous copy in the mock newspapers, boasting about the “creation of a unified Reich.”

The manipulated images in these flat-footed hypotheticals are more aspirational than misleading, but the same tactics are currently mirrored on a much larger scale by Russian disinformation campaigns, ahead of European parliamentary elections in June. Prolific “mushroom sites” copy the screen layouts of legitimate news organizations, such as the Guardian, and populate them with fake articles, videos and opinion polls. Plausible-sounding domain names trick users into believing they’re on a credible media site.

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Disinformation and election interference are not benign. NDP MP Matthew Green has called for an “ethical consensus” amongst the parties not to partake in the kind of mis- and disinformation with which Leslie flirts in his video.

Green sits on the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, which, currently, is examining the impact of mis- and disinformation on the work of parliamentarians. Several members are training the committee’s focus on Chinese attempted meddling in the 2021 election, and former MP Kenny Chiu, who lost his seat in Steveston-Richmond East.

When it comes to threats of foreign election interference, Canada has been slow to react, and the prime minister has been unsuitably glib. A preliminary report by commissioner Marie-Josee Hogue concluded the overall 2021 election results had been unaffected by foreign interference; however, she did identify a “reasonable possibility” China’s efforts may have cost Chiu his seat.

Conservative members of the Ethics Committee are working hard to keep the spotlight on Chiu and misinformation. Leslie’s hyperpartisan deepfakes certainly didn’t advance their cause.

On a scale of harm that ranges from, say, AI images of Pope Francis in a puffy coat, to mushroom sites churning out Russian disinformation, Leslie’s video probably places somewhere near the fake Time Magazine cover once found hanging at Mar-a-Lago. Created with little regard for the integrity of the news organizations they imitate, the results aren’t much more than a flex of ego, clumsily seeking the spotlight, and pulling focus from matters of election integrity that actually matter.

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