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Deepfakes, digital tribes, and bull markets
Welcome to last week's free edition, on a Monday (!)
Welcome to this week’s free edition of The Terminal. (Apologies for the wonky schedules over the past fortnight— you’ll get another free edition on Friday.) If you’d like to become a subscriber, hit the button below.
Viva the current thing
Some data from Canada did the rounds over the past few days via a story in the Toronto Star, essentially making the case that antivaxers were far more likely on average to support the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A number of other stories have made similar connections — like this one in The Guardian which noted that some Australian antivax spaces are pivoting to full-throated support for Putin.
There’s a few ways you can read that. One, as illustrated in the tweet above, is that already organised antivax communities are transforming into generalist right-wing or authoritarian movements now that Covid is politically over. A more extreme analysis would say that these spaces were already entirely captured by Russian disinformation efforts. I don’t think that’s really true, for what it’s worth, but I’ve seen a number of people make the claim at various points.
Someone who lives in the West and is antivax is probably naturally predisposed towards opposing the Western liberal order that imposed lockdowns and mandates on them, and sympathetic to those who seek to upend it. (This is despite the fact Putin is by all accounts more personally afraid of Covid than maybe anyone else on the planet.) So these trends might just capture that kind of tendency.
But it’s also hard to shake the feeling that this is also in part a manifestation of a particular genre of tribal politics which, like everything, is best captured in a meme.
The ‘I Support The Current Thing’ meme, featuring the popular NPC Wojak character — who represents an archetypal normie lacking thoughts and ideas that aren’t programmed into them by the culture — first appeared in early March, per Know Your Meme, before picking up steam after being shared by Elon Musk. The expresses the idea of a liberal who follows the online herd between social causes without ever really comprehending them, and only expressing their support as a kind of in-group signal and to satisfy an almost biological need to post.
Broadly, it’s hard to deny describes a real phenomenon. But the inverse is also true. There are plenty of people who find themselves opposing these people and their causes out of similarly reflexive identification, just in the opposite direction. You don’t have to look far to find media figures or people on social media trying to reconcile their reflexive opinion on the war with the fact that their natural political enemies are backing Ukraine en masse.
The impulse to follow the internet herds heading the other way often gets labelled ‘contrarianism’ or ‘Substack brain’ (and sometimes it is) but there’s a deeper tribalism here. You can see it pop up in weird ways too, like the current right-wing fixation on seed oils, which have replaced soy as the number one culinary signifier of dark progressive forces at work in global culture.
It has its own meme too, which some online reactionaries are wearing as a badge of pride, on the understanding that anything their political enemies support genuinely must be bad:
So, when I look at the figures from that Canadian survey, it’s hard not to parse it as a I Support The Current Thing vs I Don’t Support The Current Thing battle. Call it the Current Thing axis.
A deeper dive in the WSJ into the extremely weird use of deepfakes in the South Korean election:
Though the real Mr. Yoon hasn’t shied away from campaign mudslinging, his AI alter ego dispenses the insults in more meme-friendly vernacular. He slams his progressive rival, Lee Jae-myung, of the ruling Democratic Party, belittling him as, “Lee something something.” The AI character said one debate performance by Mr. Lee showed that “he lost his will to fight.”
“Yoon is learning from his AI Yoon messages,” said Lee Jun-seok, head of the candidate’s People Power Party, who came up with the idea of the AI version of the candidate. Mr. Yoon has adapted what he brings up on the campaign trail, and how he says it, based on the popularity of the online videos, he said.
“Human Yoon is way more interesting than AI Yoon—if you get to meet him in casual places,” added Mr. Lee, who is 36 years old and the conservative party’s youngest-ever leader.
You can probably dismiss some of this as just a general background level of South Korean media weirdness — see this great thread of election TV graphics — but it’s also interesting to see deepfakes used for electioneering in a way that isn’t necessarily deceptive.
On the other side of the coin, there was reporting last week about a deepfake circulating that appeared to show Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy announcing his surrender to Russia’s invasion.
Honestly, can’t say it’s particularly convincing. There are kids on TikTok deepfaking their faces onto characters from Netflix series that look more convincing than that. Here’s a bit in WIRED about the immediate response from tech platforms.
I’ve written about this before, but I find the deepfake panic — at least as it relates to political misinformation — really interesting. It’s very rare that you encounter a concrete example of someone being meaningfully deceived by one, and the action you see taken by tech companies is usually preemptive, on the assumption it could mislead someone.
Back in 2020, a video of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi which had been slowed down to make her seem drunk and incoherent briefly ping-ponged around right-wing Facebook, and was briefly sucked into the deepfake discourse, even though it strains the definition of the word. In that case, it was really just a piece of content intended as red meat for people already predisposed to believing anything bad about Pelosi anyway. It’s unlikely someone’s opinion of her would be materially changed by it.
The same might be said of a video of deepfake Zelenskyy announcing surrender — is anyone going to actually believe it? You obviously don’t want objective fakes circulating on your platforms, and they certainly add to the informational noise, but what is the real impact? To be honest, the act of debunking it seemed to be more politically valuable to both the Ukrainian government and the tech platforms than its existence would be to its creators.
Generally speaking, I think a lot of the concern about deepfakes, at least right now, really comes down to the worry at the heart of a lot of misinformation politics: that certain truth-bearing institutions exert less and less power or influence over parts of the population, and that we may not be able to put the genie back in the bottle.
Into the shredder
While we’re on weird election graphics… we weren’t, really, but I’ll take any opportunity to share my two favourite Australian examples. First, The Boot from 2019.
And then my perennial favourite, the Channel 9 Shredder from 2007 (“The computer’s putting John Howard back into The Shredder again” frequently enters my mind unbidden.)
Bristling with excitement at what we’ll see in a couple of months.
Winter is coming
A few stories circulated over the past couple of weeks relying on Google Trends data to argue that interest in NFTs and the metaverse had collapsed in the first months of 2022. From CoinTelegraph:
Google Trends shows that in the last 12 months, searches for “metaverse” gained traction from October to December 2021. However, since the beginning of 2022, the search interest has continued to drop, hitting its lowest point in March.
Apart from the keyword “metaverse,” the data shows that the worldwide search for “NFT” has also started its decline this year. However, the drop for NFT is more noticeable, as it reached record highs in 2021 then fell steeply in the first quarter of 2022.
I had noticed this too in an anecdotal sense — it does feel like all the red hot social media energy around NFTs, the metaverse and the utopian promises of Web3 has taken a steep nosedive over the past couple of months. There was a decline in NFT trading volume in February and prices are falling too — from an average selling price of $6,700 at the beginning of January to under $2,000 at the beginning of this month, per data tracker Nonfungible. Crypto more broadly is languishing in a bear market, and r/cryptocurrency — a reliable barometer of the general emotional vibe of average crypto investors — is not a particularly exuberant space right now.
It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but I think it’s entirely natural that everyone stops talking about the metaverse when the crypto and NFT market is down. Even the most avid Web3 fan is liable to admit that most of the people in the space are in it to secure the bag and do not give a shit about changing the internet. So when crypto is down, so too is the open bag pumping, which drives so much of the conversation, discourse and hype.
But I’d caution the haters, who are celebrating this as a sign the bubble is about to burst. There is a phenomenal amount of money and talent that has been transferred from elsewhere in the tech world into crypto and NFT companies. Crypto has been through punishing winters in the past and reemerged as a cultural and technological force on the other side, and that was without the benefit of the sheer volume of capital that is currently being pumped into it as we speak. Money has a habit of crowbarring things into relevance.
There are plenty of shit-tier projects, tokens and companies that will perish1 — and rightfully so — but I wouldn’t write it all off quite yet. I’ve spoken to passionate crypto developers who are praying for a dotcom crash equivalent, so they can be left to work on it in peace.
Thought this was a fascinating interview with political scientist Ivan Krastev on Putin’s worldview. There’s plenty of armchair psychoanalysis going around, so this was particularly interesting.
[Putin is] very intelligent and quick, forthright, confrontative. Sarcastic when speaking with someone from the West. But it is the small things that reveal the most about people. He held forth about the situation in the Donbas like a foreign service agent who knows how many people live in each village and what the situation is like in each of them. He considered the fact that primarily women were responsible for Russia policy in the Obama administration to be an intentional attempt to humiliate him. The hypocrisy of the West has become an obsession of his, and it is reflected in everything the Russian government does. Did you know that in parts of his declaration on the annexation of Crimea, he took passages almost verbatim from the Kosovo declaration of independence, which was supported by the West? Or that the attack on Kyiv began with the destruction of the television tower just as NATO attacked the television tower in Belgrade in 1999?
Thank you to the reader who sent this in: Russian ransomware outfit Conti Group had their internal comms leaked after leadership signalled support for the invasion of Ukraine, and it reveals a weirdly professionalised organisation, with physical office space, a HR department, reporting, performance reviews and all.
Good bit on how OSINT researchers are keeping track of the war in Ukraine.
The metaverse has a police department now. “Thousands are roleplaying as cops on the VRChat platform, engaging in a mix of right (saving hostages) and wrong (planting drugs on civilians).”
Behind paywall, but this is a great writeup at the Financial Times on how Facebook’s attempt at a cryptocurrency/stablecoin — first named Libra, and then Diem — fell apart.
This on the booming demand for the venom of the Sonoran desert toad amid the renaissance in psychedelics. “Toad medicine apostles are now increasingly split between those … who support using synthetic versions that are easy to produce, and purists who say they will never stop using venom collected from the toads themselves.”
An oral history of March 2020, the month international travel went down.
Interesting essay on the experimental use of technology for ‘dream incubation’.
Saw this resurfaced: “I Was The Man At The Clapperboard For Orson Welles’ Legendary Drunk Wine Commercial”.
I love getting emails from you guys, and I’m often sent really interesting links, recommendations and opinions. Over the next few weeks, I intend to start publishing some of that correspondence — with permission, of course. Please don’t hesitate to reach out!
Like, maybe 99.9% of them. Even if you accept its value as an ecosystem, there’s a surfeit of dogshit.