We Are All Being Gaslighted -- And It's Only Going To Get Worse

Published in Online Spin, February 16th, 2018.

It was 1940 when the first version of the movie “Gaslight” hit the cinemas. Based on the play by Patrick Hamilton, it chronicles the psychological torture of Bella Mallen (Diana Wynyard) by her husband Paul (Anton Walbrook).

Paul dims the lamps -- and then tells Bella they’re unchanged. He sneaks around on the upper floors -- and tells her she’s hearing noises when she comments on his footsteps. Bella begins to doubt her sanity.

The play, the movie and subsequent remakes — including Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer in the more well-known Hollywood 1944 version — were such powerful thrillers that the term “gaslighting” entered the vernacular: “a form of psychological abuse where the victim is manipulated into doubting reality.”

Imagine it for a moment: you see a dog sitting in the middle of a hotel room foyer. You say to someone, “Look at that dog!” and they reply, “What dog?” At first, you might brush it off. But then imagine exchanges like this happen over and over again -- your reality denied, your perceptions questioned. After a while, you would begin to do the questioning yourself. Did I really see a dog? Or am I losing my mind?

Right now, the President of the United States routinely engages in this kind of behavior -- so much so that, despite being nearly 70 years old, the term was the winner of the “Most Useful/Likely to Succeed” category for the American Dialect Society’s 2016 Word of the Year. Writing about why such an old word won the award, author Ben Yagoda said, “The new prominence came from Donald Trump’s habitual tendency to say ‘X,’ and then, at some later date, indignantly declare, ‘I did not say X. In fact, I would never dream of saying X.’”

But this is not a political column, and my purpose here is not to mock Trump’s behavior. Up until now, all I’ve been doing is defining the term. Because whatever you may think of Trump’s tendency to self-righteous self-contradiction, it’s nothing compared to what’s coming down the pike.

It started late last year. A Redditor known as “deepfakes” posted a video purporting to show Gal Gadot having sex with her stepbrother. In reality, deepfakes had used machine learning to superimpose Gadot’s face onto the body of a porn star.

Bad enough. But within weeks, someone else had created an app to make face-swapping accessible to anyone, no deep learning expertise required.

So you can put someone’s face onto someone else’s body. You can also manipulate someone’s face on their own body, making it track your expressions and creating realistic, in-situ video. And you can edit an audio clip of someone speaking or even generate speech from scratch in their voice, just by typing.

These technologies are already amazing, even if in most instances of their use you’ll find tell-tale artifacts of their unnatural origins.

But think about how technology progresses. It gets better. It gets cheaper. It gets easier to use.

In the very near future, someone with no technical expertise will be able to make a video of anyone saying or doing anything, and it will be impossible to know the difference.

After the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape came out in October 2016, Trump said, “I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize.”

A few months ago, after hearing about these new technologies, he reportedly began to suggest the tape was faked. This is not a Trump problem. It is so much bigger than Trump.

Thomas Jefferson wrote that, “A well-informed electorate is a prerequisite to democracy.” Imagine if we could not trust any video or audio to be authentic.

How could we possibly know what is real?

Kaila Colbin