Since then, Frissen has moved on to studying polarisation driven by digital technology, in particular synthetic media such as deep fakes and memes. While that sounds like a project made up on the spot by someone caught procrastinating in the office, its relevance can hardly be overstated.
“Synthetic media are media artefacts that have been generated or manipulated using artificial intelligence (AI) – generative adversarial networks (GANs) in particular. Machine learning and digital tools are improving so fast that anybody will be able to create footage that humans will struggle to identify as fake. Imagine the power of this – it’s a serious threat to democracy.”
“You have some really quite mad ideas and media that start out on the darker fringes of the web, like 4chan or Reddit. Some gain traction in those bubbles and are shared on Facebook. If it is outrageous enough to provoke reactions, the algorithm promotes its spread – without verifying its authenticity. A recent study shows that articles linking 5G to the spread of corona create almost ten times the engagement than reputable coverage on Facebook.”
A dilemma for established media outlets: if synthetic media, e.g. a deep fake of a celebrity or a politician is the talk of the town, they have to cover – even if only to debunk it. But by doing so, they legitimise the argument and further reinforce its spread. This is an incredibly complex and diffuse process but synthetic media such as memes provide an excellent way of tracing the early spread of ideas across the internet.
Studying their evolving use might sound as ambitious as counting fish in the sea, but Frissen embraces digital methods. He has developed an algorithm to detect similarities and key features, which can trawl the internet and collect all iterations of the same synthetic medium, whether it’s rotated, mirrored or altered. This new method then allows for the qualitative study of the evolution of those memes. “I’m very excited by the method itself but also by all the research it will facilitate,” says Frissen before sending another meme.