Consider: In the early 2010s, news broke that the now late Toronto mayor Rob Ford was seen on video smoking crack. Almost immediately, skepticism arose because the video might be doctored, despite the fact that it was viewed by two reporters who had seen Ford up close hundreds of times. What mattered was not plausibility — that some random person could have believably created a video of a big city mayor — but instead plausible deniability: that the simple possibility that one could in theory manipulate video meant that if you were inclined to support the populist mayor, the video must have been false.
Deepfakes are thus neither some novel terror nor are they insignificant. Instead, what they highlight is the role media plays in our current politics. The division between left and right isn’t disagreement about policy; it’s about competing understanding of what reality actually is. And what digital technology of all kinds allows us to do is form communities around these realities — in Facebook groups, on Twitter, on Instagram, building a mediascape for ourselves composed of what we want to see and what we want to believe.