Guest Commentary – Deepfakes, Donna Reed and Information Literacy


A friend recently emailed me a trailer for the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life”. I looked at her and thought, “Wow, my friend looks a lot like Donna Reed. “Then I watched it again and realized my friend was IN the video. It was his voice and his likeness. “Can you repeat that please?” She had superimposed her resemblance to the character of Donna Reed.

How was that possible? Enter a whole new world of “deepfakes”. Deepfakes (a coat rack of “deep learning” and “fake”) are synthetic media in which a person in an existing image or video is replaced by the likeness of someone else. While the act of falsifying content is nothing new, deepfakes exploit powerful techniques derived from machine learning and artificial intelligence to manipulate or generate visual and audio content with high potential for deception (from Wikipedia, March 17, 2021).

My friend’s deepfake as a beloved character in a popular movie looks pretty harmless. But what happens when technology is used to create videos of world leaders engaged in inappropriate behavior? Or share inaccurate information? Trend makers promoting a product or idea (but the deepfake is actually promoting)? What if the health recommendation you are following came from a deepfake? How do we know if what we are seeing is true or fabricated?

Even when something seems a little weird, there is an “illusory truth effect” when we hear something over and over. The more we hear or see something, the more we believe in it, especially if it confirms our own prejudices and beliefs. Social media has become a clearinghouse for this type of content.

As an information consumer, what can you do? Start by taking control of your digital experience. Think about where you get your news from. Is it from a reputable news source or primarily from social media? A variety of sources of information or a single source? Second, take a step back, slow down, read the entire article, watch the entire newscast. Think critically and question what you see. Make sure you are able to distinguish between news and opinion pieces. Most of us want to share credible information. Check the credibility of the news before sharing it. You can also make the headlines on Google and ask if it’s real, a hoax, or just plain fake.

We all have an obligation to be ambassadors of truth. Local librarians are information professionals who can help you discern the validity of information. PEN AMERICA is an organization that works with communities to foster informed consumption of information and provide tools to combat disinformation. To learn more about deepfakes and what you can do, go to [email protected] or visit your local library.


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