A Next Big Idea Club "Must Read" for December 2023
As all aspects of our social and informational lives increasingly migrate online, the line between what is "real" and what is digitally fabricated grows ever thinner—and that fake content has undeniable real-world consequences. A History of Fake Things on the Internet takes the long view of how advances in technology brought us to the point where faked texts, images, and video content are nearly indistinguishable from what is authentic or true.
Computer scientist Walter J. Scheirer takes a deep dive into the origins of fake news, conspiracy theories, reports of the paranormal, and other deviations from reality that have become part of mainstream culture, from image manipulation in the nineteenth-century darkroom to the literary stylings of large language models like ChatGPT. Scheirer investigates the origins of Internet fakes, from early hoaxes that traversed the globe via Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs), USENET, and a new messaging technology called email, to today's hyperrealistic, AI-generated Deepfakes. An expert in machine learning and recognition, Scheirer breaks down the technical advances that made new developments in digital deception possible, and shares behind-the-screens details of early Internet-era pranks that have become touchstones of hacker lore. His story introduces us to the visionaries and mischief-makers who first deployed digital fakery and continue to influence how digital manipulation works—and doesn't—today: computer hackers, digital artists, media forensics specialists, and AI researchers. Ultimately, Scheirer argues that problems associated with fake content are not intrinsic properties of the content itself, but rather stem from human behavior, demonstrating our capacity for both creativity and destruction.
About the author
Walter J. Scheirer is the Dennis O. Doughty Collegiate Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Notre Dame.
"There is something bold, perhaps reckless, in preaching serenity from the volcano's edge. But, as Scheirer points out, the doctored-evidence problem isn't new. Our oldest forms of recording—storytelling, writing, and painting—are laughably easy to hack. We've had to find ways to trust them nonetheless."
—Daniel Immerwahr, The New Yorker
"The Internet is awash in disinformation and conspiracy theories, with AI-generated 'deepfakes' looming on the horizon. A History of Fake Things on the Internet explains how fakes of all kinds have been a central part of Internet history and culture from the beginning. It is essential reading for understanding how we got here and where we are headed."
—Sean Lawson, coauthor of Social Engineering: How Crowdmasters, Phreaks, Hackers, and Trolls Created a New Form of Manipulative Communication
"In this captivating book, Walter J. Scheirer artfully combines the skills of a cultural critic, historian, and computer scientist to explore the many facets of technological duplicity. Going beyond cliches, the book delves into an array of historical and contemporary cases involving computer hackers, digital artists, media forensics specialists, and AI researchers. By doing so, he unveils how exactly emergent media becomes the basis for myths, falsehoods, and trickery, and with what consequences."
—Gabriella Coleman, author of Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous
"By historicizing fakeness online, Walter J. Scheirer helps readers understand the very real consequences, contexts, and stakes of digital participation. A fascinating study of creativity in all its forms—one that resists binary proclamations about what is good and creative and what is bad and destructive. Instead, the book says yes in many directions."
—Whitney Phillips, coauthor of You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape
"Drawing on a framework developed by the pioneering anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in the 1960s, Scheirer argues that humanity always occupies 'two parallel timelines: the physical world (i.e., the historical timeline) and the myth cycle (i.e., a fictional timeline).' Both are indispensable: We are confined to reality, but we cannot confront facts (or even make sense of them) without the salve of fiction."
—Becca Rothfeld, Washington Post