The Age of Digital Skepticism

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The other day I sent a friend a picture of a happy baby elephant that I found on Google Images. The reply I received was “That’s fake.” I really don’t think the picture of the baby elephant happily leaning back with its two front legs up in the air is fake — nothing about it looks doctored — but I also don’t blame my friend for questioning the legitimacy of the photo.

This is the age we live in: the digital age, yes, but it is also the age of skepticism. One of the main byproducts of the constant access to endless streams of information and to tools, programs,and devices that enable us to create, edit and broadcast all kinds of media has been the proliferation of Web hoaxes that range from silly to sophisticated alterations or fabrications of authentic content.

Certainly, we all remember the controversy surrounding the disgusting “2 girls 1 cup” video (that’s one we all hope was fake), or the recent fake Steve Jobs HIV test, or the hotly debated film/documentary Catfish involving a young man being first duped then fascinated by a woman who created a whole cast of fake family and friends on Facebook. Photoshop has given tabloids even more fodder to churn the gossip mill: every day new pictures of celebrities go up on gossip sites that may or may not be doctored to emphasize weight gain or loss or to suggest that the star in question has gotten plastic surgery. Every day there is a new viral sensation involving people posting seemingly real but outrageous emotional rants or stunts like the recent cat lady eHarmony video. The list goes on and on.

The fact that we turn these pranksters and misinformation distributors into Web celebs and memes only encourages the continued spread of fake or manipulated media. It has gotten to the point where we need to see it to believe it, but as Philip Kennicott points out in this Washington Post article, we also need to have the gut feeling that it is real. Kennicott uses the recent images and video of Gaddafi’s death as his main example of how we all have visual distrust in the digital age. No one truly believed the news that the infamous Libyan tyrant was in fact dead until seemingly indisputable images of the pale white, blood-soaked Gaddafi quickly spread around the Web. As Kennicott puts it:

Authenticity in the digital age is all about the feel of the image, the drama of how it seems to have been made. Anything can be faked in our wag-the-dog world, but it’s hard to fake this well this quickly. An image feels true not because it looks true — that’s easy to do — but because it arrives in a way that feels true.

The truth is, there will still be speculation about his death. Even when we see it we don’t necessarily believe it anymore, and why should we? Remember the fake dead Osama picture? The tools of the digital age have made skeptics of all of us, and necessarily so.

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