We are arguably experiencing the closing of a window in time that was defining the 20th century: a window that I would call mediated authenticity.
Since approximately mid of the 19th century technical inventions allowed the recording, copying, transport or transmission of aspects of our reality in the form of photography, film and sound recordings. This type of mapping of reality to technical media had interesting properties:
- it was reasonable fast and accurate
- people quickly understood how to interpret these artefacts
- over time it became so cheap that already mid of the 20th century many people could afford photography, but also film equipment
- reproduction and dissemination was relatively easy and accessible
But there was also one important constraining factor: manipulation of these types of analogue media was possible but relatively difficult. The most common form of manipulation was changing the context or selecting a specific aspect of the situation (photo). Film allowed for manipulation by cutting, narration and underlying music and sound effects.
However, with enough reproduction devices in the field (i.e. enough people taking photos or recording films, sound) the individual manipulation did not play a dominating role. There was enough media witness of important events to get a reasonable accurate mediated impression of the distant situation. Overall, this window of time, essentially the 20th century, was a time of unprecedented access to mediated (unaltered) reality.
This was not the case before the 20th century because these tools did not exist and will, arguably, not be any more in the future. Alteration and even worse: fabrication of media is becoming so simple that the unauthentic will flood the authentic. But let's illustrate that by taking a brief look into history – the case of military reporting – and then a peek into the future:
The time before 1850
Before 1850, reports from distant places were stories or in some cases written documents. Visual representations were rare and expensive, such as paintings from battles:
|Charles LeBrun: Le Passage du Granique (334 b.c.), painted in the 17th century)|
|Adam Frans von der Meulen, Cavalry in Battle (1657)|
For instance Adam Frans von der Meulen painted war pictures for Louis XIV. However, he often visited the places after the battle(s) to take some notes and sketches and actually made the painting in Paris later. War artists and war paintings were important means of propaganda and as such did not depict reality.
In the 20th century photography (and later film) become the dominating media in reporting from wars, although even today there are still war artists, for instance:
|Tom Lea, 2000 Yard Stare (1945)|
Or Operation Just Cause – Cruising the Panama Canal (1989) and Landing Zone from the Vietnam war:
|John Wehrle, Landing Zone (1966)|
But clearly, photography and film are the dominating media formats:
|First World War: Ypern (1917)|
|Desert Storm (1991)|
Since the inception of photographic reporting, there is certainly manipulation and propaganda:
|Ulysses S. Grant (ca. 1902): combination of three photos|
Stalin was well known to first kill or remove people from office then remove them from photos. Very well known is also the photo from the Spanish civil war:
|Robert Capa, Death of a Loyalist Soldier (1936) (Wikimedia)|
This photo allegedly shows a loyalist soldier in the moment of his death, being shot by the enemy. However, as Philipp Blom points out [Philipp Blom, Die zerrissenen Jahre]:
- Robert Capa was actually Endre Ernö Friedmann (and on occasion his wife Gerda Taro)
- This photo was most likely taken by Gerda Taro
- It was not shot on the claimed location and not at a time of fight. Hence the photo either shows a soldier stumbling and falling or is staged for effect.
Quantity and Authenticity
Even though there was forgery of photos and film, staged photos, photos taken or cropped out of context, still: analogue photography (and digital photography in the early years) makes credible manipulation relatively difficult and time consuming for expert. Hence the pay-off must be significant to go for that effort. But even more importantly, the large amount of cameras in the hand of ordinary people provided an overwhelmingly authentic representation of distant locations.
Deep Fakes – the End of Mediated Authenticity?
However, this window of mediated authenticity is closing, and it is closing fast. Stalin had his experts to doctor his photos for propagandistic purposes as photo manipulation was not accessible for average photographers in the analogue age.
Today, many run of the mill smartphones manipulate pictures without interaction of users, e.g. smoothing skin, changing ratios of facial elements and the like.
And advanced tools are becoming increasingly accessible to everyone, providing the opportunity to easily manipulate photos and videos or even create videos from scratch that look entirely realistic. These new manipulations are often called Deep Fakes. We already see videos of presidents who say things they never actually said, revenge pornography and other sorts of unsavoury material.
Fighting this trend is inherently difficult [Bobby Chesney, Daniell Citron, Deep Fakes: A Looming Challenge for Privacy, Democracy and National Security]. We currently witness a weapons race that will be won by the forging tools: there are tools to detect fake photos, videos and audio, but with every detection tool the forging tools become more powerful.
Already today we see apps in smartphone app stores to create deep fakes and the (technical) quality of these tools and the produces artefacts is increasing quickly.
Arguably, we had a window from ca. 1850 to 2020, where media like photo, video and audio was to a large extent authentic and was received as such by the audience. Soon we might face the situation that the majority of media distributed in social networks, on blogs and online articles are either significantly manipulated or entirely fake.
With this tsunami of deep fakes, mediated authenticity will become a romantic idea of the past.
Will we loose trust in (nearly) all media soon? Or will we be able to establish new forms or trust networks? The challenges for society, democracy and security are certainly dramatic.