The future of fake news: don’t believe everything you read, see or hear

A new breed of video and audio manipulation tools allow for the creation of realistic looking news footage, fake news, like the now infamous fake Obama speech.

In an age of Photoshop, filters and social media, many of us are used to seeing manipulated pictures – subjects become slimmer and smoother or, in the case of Snapchat, transformed into puppies.

The University of Washington’s Synthesizing Obama project took audio from one of Obama’s speeches and used it to animate his face in an entirely different video.

However, there’s a new breed of video and audio manipulation tools, made possible by advances in artificial intelligence and computer graphics, that will allow for the creation of realistic looking footage of public figures appearing to say, well, anything. Trump declaring his proclivity for water sports. Hillary Clinton describing the stolen children she keeps locked in her wine cellar. Tom Cruise finally admitting what we suspected all along … that he’s a Brony.

This is the future of fake news. We’ve long been told not to believe everything we read, but soon we’ll have to question everything we see and hear as well.

For now, there are several research teams working on capturing and synthesizing different visual and and audio elements of human behavior.

Software developed at Stanford University is able to manipulate video footage of public figures to allow a second person to put words in their mouth – in real time. Face2Face captures the second person’s facial expressions as they talk into a webcam and then morphs those movements directly onto the face of the person in the original video. The research team demonstrated their technology by puppeteering videos of George W Bush, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

Face2Face lets you puppeteer celebrities and politicians, literally putting words in their mouths.

On its own, Face2Face is a fun plaything for creating memes and entertaining late night talk show hosts. However, with the addition of a synthesized voice, it becomes more convincing – not only does the digital puppet look like the politician, but it can also sound like the politician.

Canadian startup Lyrebird has developed similar capabilities, which it says can be used to turn text into on-the-spot audiobooks “read” by famous voices or for characters in video games.

Although their intentions may be well-meaning, voice-morphing technology could be combined with face-morphing technology to create convincing fake statements by public figures.

You only have to look at the University of Washington’s Synthesizing Obama project, where they took the audio from one of Obama’s speeches and used it to animate his face in an entirely different video with incredible accuracy (thanks to training a recurrent neural network with hours of footage), to get a sense of how insidious these adulterations can be.

Beyond fake news there are many other implications, said Nitesh Saxena, associate professor and research director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s department of computer science. “You could leave fake voice messages posing as someone’s mum. Or defame someone and post the audio samples online.”

Read the complete article on The Guardian web site.

 

Trump discovers politics isn’t like business

Donald Trump listens to a speaker in the East Room of the White House on Friday. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump is used to running private companies with him as President, and enjoying the Presidential power private companies provide. Now he finds being President of the United States isn’t the same as being President of Trump Organization.

Republicans, who voted more than 60 times to repeal or alter Obamacare over the past few years only to be vetoed by Obama, had got their big chance and blown it. The party’s deep ideological and factional divisions, temporarily papered over amid the euphoria of last November’s surprise win, were back with a vengeance as it struggled to go from opposition to governance.

In Trump’s rambunctious election campaign, the 70-year-old novice promised to repeal and replace the ACA “immediately”. It was a bad choice for an opening offensive. Healthcare reform is to American presidents what the Russian winter was to Napoleon.

Trump has said tax reform is next, and years of Republican planning might allow for that legislation to pass more easily. But his ability to work with Congress is in grave question. His unique selling point, as a dealmaker, has taken a huge hit.

Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer, said of Trump’s supporters: “They voted for a guy who could fix it, the CEO, on The Apprentice for 10 years, who could make a deal with anybody.”

But the tactics that served Trump so well in business – playing the alpha male, holding one-on-one meetings – did not translate to politics, she said.

“Now he’s up against 535 other people [in the House and Senate], other people who have their own independent power base and are not really interested in rolling over. The model of taking one person in a room and beating up on them doesn’t work with 535.”

But as the health care bill negotiations gathered steam, it was clearly not going to be plain sailing. Last month, Trump admitted: “Now, I have to tell you, it’s an unbelievably complex subject. Nobody knew healthcare could be so complicated.” The bill was, in the eyes of many, rushed and deeply flawed, falling well short of Trump’s campaign pledge to provide insurance for everyone.

Grassroots protests erupted across the country, citizen activists hitting the phones and constituents berating congressmen at town hall events. Groups representing hospitals and medical professionals derided the legislation. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the AHCA would lead to 24 million fewer Americans having health insurance over the next 10 years. The bill achieved the rare feat of uniting the far left and far right in opposition.

Friday’s failure was a fillip for the anti-Trump “resistance” but it was hardly grounds for complacency. The president looks set to press ahead with his agenda on everything from rolling back Obama-era protections on the environment to building a wall on the Mexican border to firing off tweets that alienate allies and embolden enemies.

He may also ensure that his prediction of Obamacare’s explosion becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Move fast and break things” will continue, even it if means breaking his own party.

Read the complete article on The Guardian newspaper web site.

House Republicans reveal bill to repeal and replace Obama’s healthcare law


‘Working together, this unified Republican government will deliver relief and peace of mind to the millions of Americans suffering under Obamacare,’ Paul Ryan said despite health advocates’ criticism of bill. Photograph: J Scott Applewhite/AP

American Health Care Act would shrink government role in healthcare and could leave more people without insurance despite Trump administration promises.

Called the American Health Care Act, the bill would eliminate the individual mandate, which required Americans to have health insurance or pay a fine; cut the number of people insured under Medicaid; and allow insurance companies to charge the elderly up to five times more than the young.

The bill would require insurers to cover so-called pre-existing conditions, but would allow them to add a 30% surcharge to premiums if people go without insurance for too long.

“The American Health Care Act is a plan to drive down costs, encourage competition, and give every American access to quality, affordable health insurance,” said House speaker Paul Ryan. “It protects young adults, patients with pre-existing conditions, and provides a stable transition so that no one has the rug pulled out from under them.

“Working together, this unified Republican government will deliver relief and peace of mind to the millions of Americans suffering under Obamacare. This will proceed through a transparent process of regular order in full view of the public.”

But several Republican senators remained skeptical. Republicans have a 52-48 majority in the Senate. Assuming all Democrats hold firm in opposition to the Republican bill, three defections would be enough to deny Obamacare repeal a majority.

The legislation has not been fully scored by the congressional budget office and debate in the House will proceed without members having a clear accounting of the mechanics of implementing it. Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, who has proposed his own Obamacare alternative, expressed skepticism about the lack of this information.

“What I would say is I would want to know the score, what is the coverage, what is the cost absolutely,” said the Louisiana Republican. He added that proceeding without this policy detail “seems problematic”. Cassidy added: “I am trying to be diplomatic.”

Other issues in the Senate for the House bill include the proposal to roll back the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Four Republicans senators, Rob Portman of Ohio, Cory Gardner of Colorado, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska wrote publicly that they could not support the draft bill’s current provisions to eliminate the expansion of a program that provides healthcare to the working poor.

Read the complete article on The Guardian web site.

 

Did Trump’s tweet admit ties to Russia are true?

Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

Photograph: Gerald Herbert/AP

On Saturday morning, without presenting evidence, tweets by Donald Trump accused former president Barack Obama of illegal wiretapping.

On Saturday, the president launched a series of tweets that began at 5.35am. In one he wrote: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”

He followed up with a string of tweets in the next half-hour that claimed Obama had defied a court rejection to tap his office, and invited a “good lawyer” to make a case against the alleged process.

The president then compared the alleged surveillance of his communications to Watergate – the scandal in which a 1972 break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters led to revelation of crime and cover-up at the highest level of government and, ultimately, the resignation of Richard Nixon.

“How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process,” Trump tweeted. “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

Obama’s former deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, tweeted back at Trump: “No president can order a wiretap. Those restrictions were put in place to protect citizens from people like you.”

No evidence was provided to substantiate the president’s claims that Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower, and it was not clear on what information Trump was basing his allegations.

A US official told the Guardian there was “no evidence to support that claim” of Obama ordering Trump to be wiretapped.

Just before last November’s election, the British former MP and novelist Louise Mensch reported that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (Fisa) court had granted a warrant to enable the FBI to conduct surveillance of “US persons” in an investigation of possible contacts between Russian banks and the Trump Organization.

These two tweets follow days and weeks of news articles questioning ties between Trump and his associates and Russia, the resignation of General Flynn for lying about his connections with Russian and Jeff Sessions recusing himself due to lying about his meetings with Russians.

It would not be legal for a sitting president to unilaterally order surveillance; a federal court would have to approve the surveillance. Trump seems to acknowledge this in an oblique way, with an allusion to the report that the Fisa court at first turned down an initial request for a warrant.

Though Trump claimed he “just found out” about reported surveillance, he is privy to intelligence briefings in which officials would have informed him about such operations. Both Obama and Trump received these briefings during the transition, for instance, reportedly, about an unsubstantiated dossier regarding links between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials.

One has to ask oneself why Trump would invoke the possibility of wiretaps of Trump Tower at this time.

By suggesting wiretaps of Trump Tower isn’t Trump implying wiretaps are the source of leaks about Russia? Isn’t Trump then also tacitly admitting Trump and his associates did indeed have multiple contacts with Russians and that those contacts were included in the alleged wiretaps of Trump Tower?

Some newspaper reports suggest Trump is tweeting about wiretaps in order to turn attention away from investigations into Trump White House and Trump organization. This may be true. It may also be true Trump’s tweet inadvertently told the truth about Russia and Trump.

Read more here and here.

Trump ready to claim Obama record on economy

If paychecks swell in 2017, Donald Trump will claim the credit, despite the fact that wage growth first began picking up in 2015 (see chart). During the campaign, Mr Trump cast doubt on official labour-market statistics, saying that they painted a rosy picture of the economy. Next year he will probably champion them.

us_averagehourlyearnings2016

With the average pay-cheque now growing faster than at any time since 2009—when layoffs of low-paid workers were artificially boosting average wages—that argument is getting harder to make. In fact, 2.9% wage growth may be close to the limit of what the economy can produce without sparking inflation. Prime-age labour-market participation surged in the past year or so, and has now recovered about a third of its fall after the recession. Some of the remaining shortfall is almost certainly structural, rather than something stimulus, such as lower interest rates, can fix. After all, the participation of prime-age men has been falling since the 1960s, suggesting supply-side factors, such as the declining value of the skills of uneducated workers, are at work. And as the returns to schooling rise, you would naturally expect more people to choose to study rather than work.

Demographic forces are a further brake on how fast average wages can rise sustainably. The onset of the recession coincided with the first retirements of the baby-boom generation. As high-earners at the end of their careers have left the workforce, they have been replaced by low-earning younger folk. According to researchers at the San Francisco Fed, that has helped keep average pay rates down. That, too, suggests a lower speed-limit for wage growth than before the financial crisis, and hence that December’s wage growth indicates a labour market at close to full health.

Trump likes to congratulate himself. The strong economic guidance during the Obama presidency will allow Trump to claim credit for making America great again.

Read the complete article on The Economist magazine web site.

Trump’s National Security Pitch

Mr Trump held his own military-themed campaign events this week, blending vague promises to increase defence spending with fact-trampling claims about a dangerous world which fails to “respect” America. Quizzed on foreign policy at a forum in Virginia Beach, Mr Trump seemed to believe that North Korea will “soon” have an aircraft-carrier (which is news to Korea-watchers) but that he will “very simply” oblige China to rein in North Korea. Turning to the fight against IS, he suggested that finding common cause with Russia against Islamic extremism would be “nice” and work better than Mrs Clinton’s tough talk about President Vladimir Putin, adding: “Putin looks at her and he laughs.”

A televised forum in New York, hosted by NBC News and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, a charity, pointed up the downsides of Mrs Clinton’s extensive record. A Republican member of the audience charged that she had “corrupted” national security by mishandling e-mails at the State Department, and a Democrat asked sceptically about her “hawkish” foreign policy. Mrs Clinton’s hawkish instincts are sincere: several times as Secretary of State from 2009-13, she was readier to use force as a tool of geopolitics than was her boss, Barack Obama. Mr Trump played a strongman who is above mere details, declaring that under Mr Obama “the generals have been reduced to rubble” and that America has “the dumbest foreign policy”. Asked about praise from Mr Putin, he said the Russian president: “has very strong control over his country,” while Mr Obama runs a “divided country”—as if democracy is rather a nuisance. He vowed to rebuild a “depleted” military while being “very, very cautious” about using it. At its core, Mr Trump’s pitch is simplistic, chin-jutting, isolationism with a strong dose of wishful thinking.

Read the complete article on The Economist magazine web site here.

Barack Obama’s economic record: End-of-term report

Excerpts from The Economist magazine.

NOT since 1933 had an American president taken the oath of office in an economic climate as grim as it was when Barack Obama put his left hand on the Bible in January 2009. The banking system was near collapse, two big car manufacturers were sliding towards bankruptcy; and employment, the housing market and output were spiralling down.

Hemmed in by political constraints, presidents typically have only the slightest influence over the American economy. Mr Obama, like Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 and Ronald Reagan in 1981, would be an exception. Not only would his decisions be crucial to the recovery, but he also had a chance to shape the economy that emerged. As one adviser said, the crisis should not be allowed to go to waste.

Did Mr Obama blow it? Nearly four years later, voters seem to think so: approval of his economic management is near rock-bottom, the single-biggest obstacle to his re-election. This, however, is not a fair judgment on Mr Obama’s record, which must consider not just the results but the decisions he took, the alternatives on offer and the obstacles in his way. Seen in that light, the report card is better. His handling of the crisis and recession were impressive. Unfortunately, his efforts to reshape the economy have often misfired. And America’s public finances are in a dire state.

Seven weeks before Mr Obama defeated John McCain in November 2008, Lehman Brothers collapsed. AIG was bailed out shortly afterwards. The rescues of Bank of America and Citigroup lay ahead. In the final quarter of 2008, GDP shrank at an annualised rate of 9%, the worst in nearly 50 years.

The elephant in the second term

… Mr Obama is likely to move closer to the centre if he wins a second term. His principal legislative goals—health care and financial reform—are achieved. The Republicans are almost certain to control at least one chamber of Congress, precluding big new spending plans, regardless of the state of the recovery.

That leaves the public finances. There is little to commend in Mr Obama on that front. True, he inherited the largest budget deficit in peacetime history, at 10% of GDP. But in 2009 he thought it would fall to 3% by the coming fiscal year. Instead, it will be 6%, if he gets his way. Back in 2009, he thought debt would peak at 70% of GDP in 2011. Now it is projected to reach 79% in 2014 assuming his optimistic growth forecast is correct.

This is not quite the indictment it seems: normal standards of fiscal rectitude have not applied in the past four years. When households, firms and state and local governments are cutting their debts, the federal government would have made the recession worse by doing the same.

Read the complete article on The Economist here.