Commentary

What Is Synthetic Media?

When you consume media, you’re pretty sure you know who created it: writers, filmmakers, photographers, podcasters.

You know, people.

But in the blink of an eye, media makers have evolved, creating a new world where an increasing amount of the media that makes its way to your mobile device is synthetic.

Buzzword police, stand down.  Synthetic is actually an important and fast-moving definition of how humans and machines are collaborating to make media that is, on one hand, exciting and innovative, and on the other, disturbing and ethically ambiguous.

Having been swimming in the changing tides of media for a while, I thought it would be useful to define “synthetic media” for consumers and creators, and then provide both a positive and potentially horrific version of where this is headed.

Synthetic media describes media that is either algorithmically created or modified. And if that seems kind of fuzzy, don’t worry, you’re not alone. If you see a newscast with human anchors on a physical set, that’s video from the old world. Odds are, the anchor is human, but the background, screens, desk, and graphics are computer-generated, with the talent sitting on a set of green screen elements. That is, by definition, synthetic — a mix of real and computer-generated.

If only it were that simple.

The last few years have seen an explosion in synthetic media. Text, images, even video are created by software with such precision and authenticity that, chances are, you can’t tell even on close inspection content what has been synthesized.

So, in the positive evolution of synthetic media, content is automatically translated and delivered in multiple languages across the globe. More readers and viewers, and more engagement. So that’s good. And taken a step further, what if the avatar/host can be customized to be familiar to different audiences? Are people who look and sound like you more believable, more engaging? There’s plenty of evidence that says they are.

But pretty quickly we find ourselves facing the dark side. A word that appeared with urgency in the past few years was “deepfakes.” Google Trends Search says deepfake arrived as a search term in 2017. Which is to say, if you don’t know the word yet, that’s OK, we’re all playing catchup.

Using digital tech to impersonate someone starts as harmless fun, but rapidly evolves into a dangerous place. Already you can find apps that will allow you to superimpose your face over famous scenes in movies. One of them, Zao, is blowing up in China right now. But there are also apps that allow you to turn your voice into famous voices like Barak Obama’s, creating pretty believable videos where you can put fake words into his mouth.

You know that saying “seeing is believing”? Well, you can scratch that off your list of truisms. It’s not hard to imagine the games people will play with these new technologies as we approach the 2020 election.

Gotcha videos will suggest that candidates have said or done terrible things. Already Nancy Pelosi’s “slurred speech" video went viral before it was debunked.

As current elected leaders use the phrase fake news to tag anything they don’t agree with, consumers who don’t have the time or inclination to fact-check things that arrive in their feed are likely to become suspicious of news, no matter what the source or point of view.

Still, the synthetic future is already here and is likely to bring with it a panoply of magical and relevant new kinds of media. Augmented and virtual reality will allow news consumers to journey inside events, and experience them with on-the-ground, immersive understanding.

So what we do?

#1 Outlaw synthetic media. (Impossible, absurd, and counterproductive.)
#2 Embrace the new world where all things are fake and impossible to put in context. (Too dire and defeatist.)
#3 Explore, engage, and put synthetic media to work to share information, ideas, and new digital expertise across languages, devices, and platforms. (Yup.)

Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. Credit to philosopher Ferris Bueller for a necessary reminder.

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