Mark Scribner, the antihero protagonist of my graphic novel THE STRINGER, “employs his battle-zone-honed knowledge to stir up trouble by faking a Twitter fight between two Afghan warlords that sends the rockets flying,” as the book critic for the Publishers Weekly trade magazine put it.
That’s the moment when the grizzled washed-up war reporter breaks bad. It happens after a conversation with a young, hipper, Millennial colleague sparks a moment of bleak inspiration that sets everything that follows into motion. In a world of online anonymity, the dark web, bitcoin, no one really knows who anyone else really is. That is, as an arbitrage expert on Wall Street once told me, an inefficiency in the marketplace that someone will figure out how to exploit.
THE STRINGER relies on a host of technologies to unleash mayhem around the world. Here’s a look at some of them, all of them real, all of them around right now.
Fake Email Generators are marketed as a way to protect your precious email account from nefarious spammers, and who can argue with that? But it doesn’t take a genius – although Mark Scribner is a genius — to fathom the potential downside for society. If I can send you an email that looks in every way shape and form as though it came from someone legitimate, I can really mess you up. I can certainly mess them up.
I have some experience with that. Back in 1999 a man I didn’t know decided he didn’t like my politics, my writing, the general cut of my jib, I don’t really know what his real problem was. He used a primitive listserv to send emails under my name to a bunch of my colleagues and editors. It could’ve been worse, though it was pretty bad. The emails were pompous and self-congratulatory and annoying, or seemingly so since they weren’t really sent from me, and it annoyed my editor at the New York Times enough for him to fire me. He seems to have stopped, which is a good thing because fake email generators would have made him even more dangerous.
Misleading Social Media Accounts are as easy as pie to create. Many people, famous and not famous, don’t have Twitter or Facebook or other social media account at all. It’s incredibly easy to go online, as Mark does, and create real-sounding accounts for them. It’s slightly more challenging to spoof someone with a well-established online presence, but hardly impossible. Because Silicon Valley doesn’t bother to check the identities of people who create these accounts, you can create an alternative account under someone else’s name that sounds legitimate.
While I was finalizing the script, and Pablo was drawing his amazing illustrations, I read an article about Deep Fakes, in which existing video and audio archives are mined and fed into AI algorithms in order to build a vocabulary of gestures and speech and verbal tics so that a subject target can be made to appear to be saying anything you want. Without giving too much away, suffice it to say that these are an important part of the plot line.
And there’s no end in sight. For example, it is already possible to create fake three-dimensional representations of you and me that have nothing to do with you and me. It all happens inside the VR/AR virtual world.
It’s my nature to dwell on the downside risk of new technologies, but as my father, a notable aeronautical engineer told me once, technology is neutral. There are plus sides and downsides. Splitting the atom led to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; nuclear power keeps the lights on all over the world. Whether technology is a net positive or a negative depends on how it is applied in the aggregate. In the dark world of THE STRINGER, fakery becomes a tool for the most nefarious possible actors. But it doesn’t have to be that way.