One question roiling Washington right now is whether there are tapes of President Trump’s conversations with fired FBI Director Jim Comey. President Trump tweeted earlier that he had tapes, and last week he responded cryptically to reporters’ questions about it.
Perhaps the President will end the suspense soon about whether he has recordings. In the meantime, though, all the speculation provides a teachable moment about the value of recordings as evidence in light of new technological developments. In fact, if a tape of uncertain provenance does emerge that contradicts Comey’s Senate testimony, you might want to be skeptical—or at least reserve judgment until it has been reviewed and verified.
Recordings simply aren’t the gold-standard evidence they used to be. On the contrary, technology now exists to produce manufactured conversations with real people’s voices—think Photoshop for sound. Here’s a recent TechCrunch report on such technology produced by a startup in Montreal called Lyrebird. The report links to samples, including an entirely manufactured conversation between Donald Trump, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. It still sounds a bit robotic, but is it implausible to think that someone out there (like, say, the Russian government) already has something better—or soon will? (A Lyrebird engineer told TechCrunch he expects truly indistinguishable synthetic voices to be available in “a matter of years.”)
To be clear, I don’t think a fake Comey tape is likely to emerge in this instance, and I don’t mean to suggest or embrace any conspiracy theory about what the President or his associates might do. Even if one feared the President or his allies would stoop to the level of doctoring evidence, one has to assume the blowback would be severe if their involvement were discovered. Plus, contradicting Comey in this case would require proving a negative—that Trump didn’t say the untoward things Comey described. Manufactured statements wouldn’t necessarily help with that. Perhaps it’s conceivable that some independent Trump supporter (say, as the President put it in a different context, “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds”) might try to produce a fake tape. Wikileaks has, after all, offered a $100,000 reward for Trump-Comey recordings. But even that seems unlikely to me in this instance. Given that a genuine tape in this case could come only from the President or someone else at the White House, a fishy recording would likely lead only to awkward questions that hurt the President’s cause.
So in all events and for a variety of reasons, I don’t think this is a bridge we’ll need to cross right now. But the current tape controversy is a good time to start thinking about the possibility of fake recordings and their implications for accountability and transparency in our democracy.
Among other things, this technology means the fake news problem that some think played a role in the 2016 election may get much worse. In time, presumably people will adjust their expectations to grow more skeptical and thus less gullible. In fact, an ethics statement on Lyrebird’s website indicates that the company is releasing its technology in part to help start the process of public self-inoculation. “Voice recordings are currently considered as strong pieces of evidence in our societies and in particular in jurisdictions of many countries,” the statement says. “Our technology questions the validity of such evidence as it allows to easily manipulate audio recordings.”
But how long will it take for electorates to adapt? In the meantime, the implications are disquieting. We’re used to laughing at the Groucho Marx line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your own eyes?” The answer soon may not always be so clear: the credibility of information sources may be more important than what our senses perceive. And of course significant segments of the electorate no longer trust traditional intermediaries like the mainstream press to credibly authenticate (or discredit) information.
At the same time, the implications of getting it wrong can be serious. The current crisis between Qatar and its neighbors in the Middle East was reportedly triggered in part by a fake news report planted by hackers, and a major scandal a few years ago in Turkey involved an apparent recording of then-Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Erdogan claimed was fake.
I don’t want to game out what happens if a fake Comey tape emerges in the current climate. Again, it seems unlikely that will happen—this time. But figuring out how to address and counteract this sort of tool for manipulation is an urgent problem, with important implications for our democracy and legal system. In time, we may all just have to get even more cynical.
(H/t to Rick Pildes and Nate Persily for calling my attention to this technology.)