LEWISTON — When the Senate Intelligence Committee, on which U.S. Sen. Angus King serves, began investigating how the Russians interfered in the last U.S. presidential election, it focused mostly on computer hacking.

But Maine’s junior senator no longer thinks that is the big issue.

Instead, King said, he has come to believe “the most important part of the story” is the way Russians used social media as a weapon against the United States and its election.

“And it’s still happening,” he said Wednesday.

Challenging as the problem already is, King said, it is about to get much worse. And he is not confident a public that has gotten used to doubting both the press and law enforcement will be able to cope with the growing threat.

The senator is worried about something called a “deep fake,” which is an unfamiliar term for most Americans but not something new. It is not much different from the digital manipulation used in the movies for years to enhance or alter reality to show convincing video that appears real.

As U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., recently said during a speech to The Heritage Foundation in Washington, the software to manipulate reality to create seemingly realistic audio and video is widely available and becoming ever easier to use.

King said it is now easy to conjure up a video that shows him talking about something that looks real but was actually created on a computer and that is utterly invented.

“For somebody in my line of work,” King said, “it’s pretty damn unsettling.”

Rubio said they could create a video of a public figure taking a bribe or making an insensitive racial comment or any number of other potentially damaging scenarios that would look real.

After all, he said, “it’s your face. It’s your voice. It’s you.”

Except, of course, it is not.

Rubio, who serves on the intelligence panel with King and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, said that two years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin “tried to sow instability and chaos in American politics.”

It worked, too, Rubio said.

“We have a society at each other’s throat,” he said, in part because of the social media push by Russia’s reliance on Twitter bots and other measures that Rubio said have not yet been disclosed.

They did not use fake video and fake audio recordings, however, Rubio said.

But consider what happens if they do, he said.

During the opening of his field office in Auburn last week, King said a “deep fake” video could show him saying something he never uttered, which could then spread like wildfire on social media.

Once it is out there, King said, “you can never really rebut it” fast enough or thoroughly enough to let reality catch up with the lie.

These days, Rubio pointed out, “You can reach millions of people within seconds.”

King said there is no way to predict when something might come out or to figure out where it came from.

For now, he said, the Russians are the most likely to employ the technique to monkey with American elections or target politicians. But in the not-too-distant future, he said, “it could be the Chinese or a crook in Boise.”

Talking to digital marketing experts at Rinck Advertising on Lisbon Street, King said he was sure they could see the threat.

Peter Rinck, chief executive officer, said while his firm uses digital technology for good, he understands “the danger that’s really out there to democracy.”

It does not help, said the company’s president, Laura Rinck, that “trust is eroding” in the traditional media.

“It’s very disturbing what’s happening in this country,” she said, when President Donald Trump is calling the press “an enemy of the people,” and crowds at his rally are shrieking at journalists.

King said, “Our society is based on trust,” and its erosion undermines the more than 200-year-old experiment in democracy that has made the United States such a grand anomaly in the world’s history.

Reliance on truthful information is crucial, the senator said, and putting the very notion of what’s true in jeopardy is a serious threat.

King said the German defense minister told senators recently about a case a few years ago when a false story spread there about an immigrant raping a 13-year-old. Germany’s equivalent of the FBI investigated, he said, and discovered it never happened, a fact the press there disseminated widely. And that was the end of it, King said, because Germans believed the media and the authorities.

“Imagine if that was here today,” King said, with the FBI under fire and the press distrusted by so many Americans.

Both have been so devalued by incessant attacks, he said, that probably a third of the country would not accept their conclusions.

“That’s pretty scary,” he said, and it does not provide much confidence that fake videos would fail to gain attention from a public that might believe them.

Laura Rinck said it could take years to undo the damage done by Trump to some of the nation’s institutions.

“Can you even do it in a generation?” she said. “How far can we slide?”

At The Heritage Foundation, University of Maryland Law Professor Danielle Citron said the worst-case scenario involving “deep fake” tactics is bad.

She said people “could lose faith in our public discourse” as it becomes ever harder to know what is true. In the end, she fears, authoritarian leaders may be the ones to decide.

Chris Begler, a senior staff scientist at Google AI, an expert in artificial intelligence, said software detectors may be able to keep up with the improving technology so that it will be possible to know which recordings are true and which are fake.

“How do you control this kind of thing?” King asked. “And I think it’s going to get worse.”

Whatever happens, King said, it is important that Americans become more savvy about what they see and hear.

Otherwise, King said, “a very challenging issue” could become one that endangers democracy.

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U.S. Sen. Angus King talks to employees Wednesday at Rinck Advertising in Lewiston. (@SenAngusKing Twitter photo)

U.S. Sen. Angus King talks Wednesday with Laura and Peter Rinck, owners of Rinck Advertising, about their successful business on Lisbon Street in Lewiston. As he looked around the office, King said, “I feel like I’m in Silicon Valley.” (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)

U.S. Sen. Angus King at the opening of his field office in Auburn last week. (Steve Collins/Sun Journal)


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