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After earlier and incorrectly predicting his own arrest this week, former President Donald Trump veered into the more sinister business of predicting violence and catastrophe if he’s arrested.
Whether the prediction turns into reality is another thing entirely.
Trump’s reemergence into the headlines, as both a third-time presidential candidate and a potential defendant, is threatening to pull the country back into his reality. Trump has not been formally charged with any crime and denies all wrongdoing.
Compare the lived reality where people interact, mostly in peace, and go about their lives with the Trump-centered, fake world available on social media.
In the real world, Trump hasn’t been charged with anything. On Twitter, fake photos of his arrest generated by artificial intelligence have been viewed millions of times.
In the real world, prosecutors have to form a methodical criminal case before they indict a defendant. On social media, Trump says everything is part of a plot against him.
Positing the idea of violent retribution into the echo chamber of his Truth Social platform early Friday, Trump said it is “known that potential death & destruction” that would be “catastrophic for our Country” would result if a charge is brought against him.
In a post Thursday, Trump went into all caps – the typographical equivalent of screaming – to declare his innocence and add, “OUR COUNTRY IS BEING DESTROYED, AS THEY TELL US TO BE PEACEFUL.”
The veiled threats place a new form of pressure on Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who has already been threatened by Republicans in Congress with an investigation. Without naming Bragg in the Friday post, Trump said anyone who would charge him with a crime is “a degenerate psychopath that truely (sic) hates the USA!”
CNN’s Brynn Gingras and Kara Scannell reported Friday that Bragg’s office received a package containing a white powder substance and a threatening note. They added that while authorities determined there was no dangerous substance, the package capped off a week where law enforcement has seen continual threats against the court, including several bomb threats, all of which turned out to be unfounded.
Meanwhile, rather than condemn Trump’s latest post, top Republicans in Washington like House Speaker Kevin McCarthy refused to answer questions about it.
The photos of Trump being arrested were created in jest by Eliot Higgins, founder of the investigative journalism group Bellingcat, who asked an AI art generator to make a photo of “Donald Trump falling down while being arrested,” according to The Washington Post.
“I was just mucking about,” Higgins told the Post. “I thought maybe five people would retweet it.”
Bellingcat, ironically, uses social media posts and other digital data to prove facts, uncovering crimes and investigating atrocities. CNN worked with Bellingcat, for instance, to uncover the Russian operatives who apparently tried to poison the now-jailed dissident leader Alexey Navalny. The group has also used social media to track down apparent war crimes in Ukraine.
The fake photos, while requiring a double take, were clearly not real. But it is that first impression that can be misleading – and lasting. They fed Trump’s narrative of persecution, a visual manifestation of the drama he puts into his posts.
There’s more and more of this online, and it’s getting harder and harder to tell fiction from reality.
Earlier this month, CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan had an incredible video report on the power of AI-generated audio. In addition to magically mimicking Anderson Cooper, he used an AI generator to call his parents. The computer sounded like his voice, but it was not O’Sullivan talking. While his mother later said O’Sullivan’s Irish accent felt off during the conversation, she did not catch it in real time.
“When we enter this world where anything can be fake – any image, any audio, any video, any piece of text, nothing has to be real – we have what’s called the liar’s dividend, which is anybody can deny reality,” Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Information, told O’Sullivan.
There are many examples of deepfake photos and videos if not tricking people, then certainly causing harm – such as women whose faces have been deepfaked, without their consent, onto pornography.
When something is repeated enough online or when a fake narrative takes hold, it can influence the real world. That’s certainly what happened on January 6, 2021, when conspiracy theories that blossomed online turned into an attack on the Capitol.
“There is no online and offline world; there’s one world, and it’s fully integrated,” Farid told O’Sullivan with regard to the potential for AI to create a false reality online that bleeds into the real world.
“When things happen on the internet, they have real implications for individuals, for communities, for societies, for democracies, and I don’t think we as a field have fully come to grips with our responsibility here,” he said.
It’s something to be very careful of as we look at what could be a historic period in which a former president, current candidate, serial conspiracy theorist and master of social media potentially faces criminal charges.