Fake news is entering dangerous new realms with the advancement of technology, particularly the rise of artificial intelligence.
A recent investigation found that articles published by a number of well-established media outlets in various countries around the world were, in fact, authored by a network of fake journalists. The individuals may have had all the hallmarks of journalists; qualifications, career history, connections... but they were not journalists. They were not even real people.
The fictitious journalists reportedly used fake names and artificially-generated images, creating personas so convincing that media outlets believed that they were publishing opinion pieces written by genuine and credible individuals. The operation was orchestrated for the sole purpose of spreading misinformation.
Creating a fake face is easier than you might think. The website thispersondoesnotexist.com produces an image of a new face every few seconds. Individuals can simply refresh their internet browser to view a seemingly endless bank of photographs, selecting one that fits their intended purpose. Being fake, these images cannot readily be traced back to a source – unlike stolen photos.
The creation of fake personas is not a new concept, with “catfishing” and “deep fakes” becoming well-known phrases over the past few years. The Associated Press also reported last year that a spy used an artificially-generated face to connect with targets. But this recent investigation illustrates that fake personas and AI have reached a new and dangerous level.
Indeed, The Daily Beast reported that the network of fictitious journalists - which consisted of at least 19 fake personas - published more than 90 opinion pieces in 46 different publications over the course of a year. This is deception and manipulation on an enormous scale.
Why wouldn’t we believe that an article written by an expert in his or her field, who has a LinkedIn profile boasting a wealth of experience, top academic credentials and relevant connections, published in established publications is real? We are naturally more inclined to believe an underlying story when it is published by a familiar newspaper or trusted source, as Emily Williams discusses in “Why you might be accepting fake news without realising it”.
Why do people do this? There are a multitude of reasons why an individual or group of individuals may adopt a fictitious persona – to further a political agenda, promote a particular ideology, discredit certain individuals or organisations, or harm the reputation of their competitors, all anonymously. It has never been more important to consider the legitimacy not only of the content you are reading but also the individuals credited, and to be mindful of the potential underlying agenda.
As ever, pre-emptive measures to protect your reputation in these times could prove crucial, particularly given the inevitable difficulty of legal action and enforcement against persons who do not exist.
In the event you suspect you have been targeted or contacted by someone adopting a fake persona, we recommend taking the following steps:
- Video conferencing. Request a video conference with the individual to verify their identity. The fact that one of the journalists in question refused to have a Zoom meeting raised a red flag and was one of the factors that ultimately led to the investigation referred to above.
- Additional photographs. Obtain another photograph of the individual taken in a different setting. It is believed that the algorithm used to create fake images is currently unable to generate multiple images of the same fake person.
- Photograph abnormalities. Pay close attention to the profile photo or image used. Photographs generated by AI can have certain defects. Some things to look out for include water droplets or smudges, asymmetries, a shiny glow around the hair, unnatural teeth, blurry or odd-looking accessories and indistinct backgrounds. You may also wish to visit whichfaceisreal.com which offers advice on how to identify fake photographs.
- LinkedIn / professional network connections. Be mindful of who you accept on LinkedIn or other professional or social networks and speak to people in your networks to verify an individual’s identity. Individuals may be exploiting their connection with you in order to boost their credibility, or may use it as a platform on which to contact you directly for malicious purposes.
- Dates of creation of social media accounts / websites. Consider the dates of creation of Twitter or other social media accounts and of any company or personal website(s) that the individual in question is connected with. If these have been created relatively recently then it may be worth considering further.