A new pandemic is sweeping the planet. Police fired on secessionist demonstrators in Oregon. The Chinese government is trying (unsuccessfully) to suppress news of eco-terrorists bombing multiple coal-fired power plants. We're looking at climate refugees numbering in the tens of millions. The human race will go extinct by 2042.
None of these are true. All of these are draft plot elements of Superstruct, the "massively-multiplayer forecasting game" I'm working on with Jane McGonigal and the Institute for the Future. The game -- which Jane describes as "real play, not role play" asks participants to imagine themselves in 2019, and to tell us (and the world) about the kinds of challenges they face, and the choices they make with their lives. We're asking participants to use a variety of media, from YouTube videos to Twitter posts, to document their future lives.
Here's the dilemma: some people are going to believe that it's real. We're going to be playing at the edge of the Participatory Decepticon.
The use of plausible-but-fake media has a long history, but increasingly, we live in a media-saturated culture that makes it hard to distinguish between the real and the realistic. And this has consequences.
Earlier this week, Google News posted as current a six-year-old article from the South Florida Sun, reporting on the 2002 bankruptcy filing of United Airlines (UAL). The article in the Sun archive didn't carry a date record, and the Google algorithm decided (not unreasonably) that it was new. Although United isn't going into bankruptcy, it -- like all airlines--faces a decidedly tough market, so a seemingly new announcement of bankruptcy proceedings seemed just reasonable enough to send United's stock price plummeting by 75%. After traders realized the mistake, the stock price regained most of its value by the end of the day.
As anyone who knows the story of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds radio broadcast can attest, a story doesn't have to be true to cause a panic. But Welles' radio show had a limited audience; with the Internet, and with various news-pushing tools (from email to RSS to Twitter to texting to...) that emphasize short headlines, the reaction is both orders of magnitude faster and orders of magnitude stronger. It has to come from a reasonably-trusted source; it can't be just some random email or Twitter post (although the current spam trend of using plausible-but-provocative headlines to get you to open the message plays on this tendency, too).
A quirky misalignment of the Sun archives and the Google News spider? Probably. But think about this for a moment: the sudden appearance of something easily proven to be untrue, but just plausible enough to be believed, was enough to cut three-quarters of the market value of a major corporation. Anyone who bought UAL at $3--the bottom of the drop -- made quite a tidy profit when the stock bounced back to around $11. (Bloomberg's mistaken publication of an obituary for Steve Jobs on August 28 would likely have had a similar impact, had it occurred during trading hours.)
The UAL event appears to have been entirely accidental. The next time probably won't be. My only question is whether it will happen as a plot for a crime drama episode before it happens in real life.
It's remarkably easy for false-but-plausible images, video, and stories to be used to muddy the waters of a economic, social, and political conflicts. I'm honestly a bit surprised that we haven't yet seen clear examples of this happening in the current US presidential election (photoshopped images of a vice-presidential candidate in a bikini notwithstanding); as the campaign grows more rancorous, though, I expect to see faked recordings showing up at any moment. Palin's relative obscurity would make it easy to create plausible-enough media of her doing or saying ridiculous or offensive things; the 20-30% of the American public willing to believe just about anything bad about Obama would make it easy to do the same thing to him. McCain and Biden could get their turns, too.
It doesn't have to be anything close to real -- it just has to be realistic, and sufficiently believable to cause a quick "market" collapse. Even after the market recovers, the meme has been planted.
What does this mean for Superstruct? Hopefully, we won't have too many people taking the various posts and videos to be real. But expect the Participatory Decepticon to have a prominent place in the world of 2019 -- and don't believe everything you read.