Book Review: ‘Deep Fakes and the Infocalypse’ by Nina Schick and ‘The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare’ by Thomas Rid

By Chloe Scrimshaw

Exacerbated by the pandemic, the time we are spending on our screens has increased and subsequently brought back into focus uncomfortable issues regarding modern digital communications, information and the law. ‘Deep Fakes and the Infocalypse’ by Nina Schick and ‘The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare’ by Thomas Rid are two books which explore the mutually reinforcing themes of the prevalence of fake media through advanced technology (e.g. deep fakes) and the crisis of misinformation.

A well-known thinker on AI, technology, and its re-shaping of politics, Nina Schick in her recent book ‘Deep Fakes and the Infocalypse’, explores the rise of fake news and the alarmingly outsized impact this type of misinformation has on how we think and behave. Written during lockdown, the book provides a real-time assessment of AI-generated synthetic content (fake video, audio, images and text) and how it is being used negatively to spread disinformation or misinformation. Schick states that the world has become so inundated with misinformation, the disintegration of expertise, the prevalence of alternative media sources and the erosion of conventional information arbiters; that we are amid an ‘Infocalypse’.

Using common examples such as President Trump’s denial of facts, anti-vaccination campaigns and clickbait driven media, Schick explores how it has become harder than ever to discern fact from fiction. What is even more interesting is Schick’s exploration of what synthetic media means for the broader economy (both illicit and licet). For example, her exploration of synthetic media around the porn industry is a fascinating vehicle to understand the ownership of pictures and identity as well as the wider marketplace. If celebrity images can be used on adult entertainers creating synthetic media with limited legal recourse, what does this mean for the rest of us? Going even further, what if synthetic media were released that allegedly showed a CEO notifying investors of a fatal problem in their product - would the company’s stock price plummet? How quickly could the damage be contained?

Schick states that with the advent and democratisation of synthetic media tools and technologies, this ‘Infocalypse’ will only get worse, as anyone can fabricate any image they want or make anyone appear to say anything. In this regard, it will become even more difficult to tell what is real and what is not; creating an increasingly dangerous and untrustworthy information ecosystem. Schick argues, however, that this crisis is not at heart a technology problem but rather that technology is being used here as the amplifier of human intention, and our laws and culture have not yet caught up with what technology is able to do.  An academic at John Hopkins University in the US, Thomas Rid, in his book ‘Active Measures – The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare’ – presents a detailed account of Russia’s historic strategy of using disinformation to undermine Western resolve and encourage political uncertainty. Rid argues that the operations exposed in the US around the 2016 election might not have an impact on the voting figures, but that the debate and soul-searching they ignited did much to establish uncertainty around the validity of election results. He notes that Russia’s capability in this area has a long history through the Cold War and beyond. In more confident times, its impact was perhaps more muted, but it is clear that the new digital world has given it new capabilities and reach. For example, its role in fermenting uncertainty during the Covid-19 crisis around Boris Johnson’s hospitalisation, around Bill Gates’s financial support for vaccine development, and encouraging US criticisms of China show that this is an arm of Russian soft warfare that continues to be effective. Signs that Iran and China are adopting similar strategies to advance their own interests is concerning. Rid argues that it is a capability against which the West is constrained in how they respond as a result of its law and culture.