Digitally Retouching History

The Subscription Economy Matures
March 10, 2020
Personal Robots and Robot Butlers
March 10, 2020

Digitally Retouching History

Digital tools now give government agencies the ability to edit, distort, or outright censor content made by citizens.

Key Insight

Digital tools now give government agencies the ability to edit, distort, or outright censor content made by citizens.

Why It Matters

Digitally altering archival content—for example, photos taken of a historic event—can lead to misunderstanding and public confusion in the future.

Examples

Throughout history, governments have manipulated photos—in 2008, when it was thought that North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il was critically ill or had died, the North Korean government released a photo of Jong-il standing with his People’s Army. Forensic experts suspected that his image had been digitally inserted.

What’s Next

Early in 2020, an exhibit at the U.S. National Archives celebrated the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage and included a series of photographs taken at the first Women’s March, held a day after President Donald Trump’s inauguration. One of the photographs had been altered to blur placards and signs that disparaged Trump. Signs that depicted or referenced women’s anatomy were also digitally edited. In the photo, a sign that had originally read “Trump & GOP–Hands Off Women” was digitally altered so that the word “Trump” could not be seen. Other signs where Trump’s name could be read clearly were digitally blurred. The museum said that it had altered images to protect student groups touring the exhibit, but historians balked at the explanation. It was an unusual move in a democratic nation—and yet there are currently no regulations governing the digital alteration of archival content.

The Impact

With deepfake technologies, automatic dubbing, and other automated editing tools more widely available, there is growing concern that autocratic leaders will start digitally manipulating content for use in propaganda and real-time disinformation.

Watchlist

Adobe, Amazon, DataGrid, Facebook, Google, National Archives, MIT’s CSAIL, Meo, Microsoft, Modulate, Twitter, governments worldwide.