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Editorial: Poloncarz campaign's digital lie

Here’s the bottom line and, in a just world, it will color how voters view Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz when they go to the polls next month: His campaign’s attack ad was a lie.

Not just a lie, but a dangerous lie. A 21st century lie. A lie in which a candidate for public office manipulates reality to convince voters that the lie is, in fact, the truth. It’s reprehensible and it’s just a taste of what is to come.

The campaign pulled an image of his opponent, Lynne M. Dixon, in which she appeared with a Vietnam veteran, Russell Ward, a recipient of the Purple Heart. It then merged her image with one of former Rep. Chris Collins to make it look as though they were appearing together and smiling.

The goal of the misrepresentation is obvious. Collins pleaded guilty last week to federal felonies involving insider trading and resigned in disgrace. He lost his 2011 re-election campaign to Poloncarz based in part on policies that many voters disliked. So, a vote for Dixon is like a vote for Collins. Get it?

It’s pathetic and it’s dangerous. But the lie was amateurish compared to what the future holds. Technology has advanced so greatly that it has become possible to manipulate both voice and video to make it appear that people are saying things and behaving in ways that alter reality. In one famous case, video of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was doctored to make her sound intoxicated.

In another distortion – an especially malignant variety known as a “deepfake” – video of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was merged with a computer-generated image and the voice of an actor to make it appear Zuckerberg was describing himself as “one man, with total control over billions of people’s stolen data.”

It never happened. But it seemed like it did.

(For more disturbing examples of the misuse of modern technology, see The Washington Post report headlined “Seeing Isn’t Believing – The Fact Checker’s guide to manipulated video.”)

This is the precipice on which the world stands. Voters may soon be asked to render judgments based on digital misrepresentations made to look truthful. The tawdry lie of the Poloncarz campaign may seem comparatively innocent, but the impulse is the same: to use technology in a sordid effort to mislead the voters of a democracy.

Poloncarz campaign manager Jennifer L. Hibit dismissed the complaints on the grounds that the ad has been taken down. “I feel like it’s a moot point,” she said. But does anyone think she would feel the same if someone digitally manipulated the truth about her candidate?

Indeed, this needs to be as nonpartisan an issue as this divided country can manage. Without a broad acceptance of the facts in any debate, it will be impossible to agree on the solutions. That’s the threat of this misuse of technology. It seeks to affirm the truthfulness of “alternative facts,” which is to say, of lies.

The future calls for informed and skeptical voters and for a bipartisan willingness to call out digital lies. It will be interesting to see how many Democrats are willing to speak up about the one committed by the Poloncarz campaign.

Truth has to matter in democratic government. If it doesn’t, what value is democracy?

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