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1 April 2023

Our parents were right: we can no longer trust what we see on the internet

I’d been lied to, by the very thing I hold in my hand for the majority of my day. How could I trust my phone again?

By Marie Le Conte

It felt like being in a hammy dystopian movie. I was standing there, in Tangier, looking at the sea and the sky, then at the screen of my phone, then back again. I fiddled with the settings on my phone camera and tried again, but to no avail. Whenever I took a picture of the sea and the sky, they looked bluer and more beautiful on the screen than they did in real life.

Defeated, I still posted the shot to Instagram, because I like documenting my holidays on social media. “Oh god that sea,” an acquaintance commented. “It’s not real,” I wanted to tell her. It made me feel like a fraud, someone who’d resentfully gone in on a con job. At least this time I realised what was happening.

Last year I spent a few weeks thinking I looked really great. I’d not been doing anything different – no new haircut, lover or skincare routine – but somehow the various selfies I took were all winners. It was a bit confusing but, well, who was I to complain?

My carriage turned back into a pumpkin once I clicked on a button I’d never noticed on my camera app. My phone had recently updated itself and, it turned out, had decided to start automatically editing my face, without bothering to tell me about it. I turned the option off and lo, the dark circles under my eyes and enlarged pores around my nose returned.

I’d been lied to, by the very thing I hold in my hand for the majority of my day. How could I trust it again? How can I now, knowing it no longer even gives me the option of capturing reality as it is?

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[See also: When the internet goes dark]

The selfie incident had mostly been amusing, if slightly bruising to the ego, but it is now part of a trend many are beginning to notice. As Joel Golby entertainingly wrote in the Guardian this week: “It happened to me: I thought the image of the pope in a big coat was real… This was shocking for me, because as someone who is 35 and self-identifies as ‘too online’, I thought I was above being hoodwinked in this way.”

I was also taken in by that photo. I even showed it to a friend in the pub when it first appeared on my timeline. It’d never happened before. I was always able to spot AI, until I wasn’t. What’s especially worrying is that, very soon, none of us will be able to.

Over on the French side of Twitter, a picture of an old man rioting, his face covered in blood, has been going viral. It’s almost certainly an AI creation. Trouble is, it’s hard to know for sure. As the journalist Marie Turcan points out, there is no certain way to tell if a picture is fake or not, especially if it’s been screengrabbed and reposted again and again. The “count the fingers” trick worked for a little while but it is already obsolete. Soon, she says, we may struggle to prove that a picture is real.

The logical conclusion, then, is to return to Nineties parents’ beloved maxim: don’t believe everything you see on the internet. It just isn’t clear how we ought to do that when, in those thirty years, the internet has become such a large part of our lives.

Take breaking news: for the past decade or so, journalists have been using Twitter to do their job as quickly and efficiently as possible. Will they be able to keep doing so if Elon Musk really does remove all “legacy” blue ticks from the app?

In politics more broadly, it is hard not to be anything but pessimistic when confronted with the idea of speeches and recordings being seamlessly created from thin air. Misleading viral posts have already caused untold damage. What will happen when even basic research cannot confirm that something really did happen?

On a more personal note, too, the change will be quietly cataclysmic. The internet is where millions and millions of us have been storing our thoughts, ideas and memories. It’s where we’ve made our friends, got jobs, fallen in love. It’s our home. What happens when you can no longer trust your home but you know you cannot leave it? What happens when you know that there’s nothing you can do?

Because that’s the crux of the problem, right? We’re all stuck here – me, writing this online, you, reading it online – but no one asks us for our opinions on it. Phone manufacturers decide that I must want my face to be prettier and the sea to be bluer. AI researchers decide that the world must want free, unfettered access to their work. Elon Musk decides that whatever he wants is the right thing to do. We can only sit here, phone in hand, and take it.

I do wonder if there will be a tipping point. A moment – different for everyone, but inevitable – when something happens and we decide to step back, bit by bit. It won’t happen all at once but maybe these companies will, one day, see that they took our trust for granted for too long and will start having to work on rebuilding it.

Maybe. I hope so. I don’t really have anything else to offer. In the meantime I’ll just have to start taking my film camera on holiday with me again.

[See also: How Big Tech made us screen addicts]

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