There’s nothing funny about fake news, the sort of propaganda that’s designed to spread across social networks and create political chaos, especially as we enter a time when artificial intelligence can replace human writers and create infinite false articles.
And to demonstrate exactly how absurd the problem is, a new AI called Grover, developed by the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the University of Washington (and spotted by AI Weirdness), allows you to enter a headline, and it will generate hundreds of words of convincing, fake text that looks like it belongs in the New York Times or on CNN.
Technically, Grover is an AI model that has been developed to spot fake news written by machines—what is considered a minority of fake news at the moment, but bound to grow as automation improves. Trained on 120 gigabytes of real news articles, gathered from the 5,000 publications on Google News, it can tell a human-written story from a computer-written story with 73% accuracy. But to develop Grover, the researchers didn’t just teach it to spot (or what scientists call “discriminate”) fake news. They taught it to write (or “generate”) fake news. (Humans also scored Grover’s work, and rated it more trustworthy than human-written propaganda!)
Luckily for you, the researchers put Grover’s fake news generator online for anyone to try. And let me say, from personal experience, that it can create some doozies. For a test, I wrote the headline: “Why Donald Trump Eats 100 Cheeseburgers a Day.” This is an article that even I, a journalist, don’t know how I’d go about writing. It is, after all, a pure fiction. Grover, however, seems to relish the challenge:
“In an interview this year with Dr. Phil McGraw, the television host, Trump told his story of becoming a self-described ‘buffet freak’ after watching the Jamie Oliver-branded show Jamie’s Italian on TV. Oliver turned back that giddiness a few years later, accusing Trump of feeding his body ‘graham crackers’ and ‘pretzels’ rather than vegetables and fruit . . .
” . . . Another of Trump’s favorite diets: eating 100 cheeseburgers a day. He orders the crunchy, cheese-coated hot dogs on white buns from ‘America’s favorite fast food purveyor,’ Nathan’s Famous in New York City. Since Trump spent a very successful career in New York’s real estate world—an industry almost devoid of healthy alternatives—his companions have had to endure the food addiction. When Trump’s son, Donald Jr., would accompany him on fishing trips to Atlantic City, the pair would stop by Nathan’s twice a day.”
Yes, the story is terrifying (for both its imagery and its implications), but it’s also very well done. It’s specific (a spat with Jaimie Oliver! Trips to Nathan’s with Donald Jr.!) and makes logical connections (that Nathan’s is in New York, and Trump is in New York, so Trump must be wolfing down 100 of some meat on a bun a day at this junk food destination). The cadence of speech isn’t always smooth, but it sounds good enough. If you were skimming, this story could be incredibly convincing.
To see how Grover would do with an even more improbable narrative, I wrote another headline: “Why Donald Trump Does 100 Push-Ups a Day.” Again, the results were pretty realistic:
“When you think of push-ups, the first image that comes to mind isn’t the president of the United States. As a commander in chief, Trump has hardly been known for his fitness. His promise to exercise once he became president and the fairly public barbs he lobbed at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s skills on The Celebrity Apprentice provided that nothing could stop Trump from not doing his Trump-y push-ups.
“But as even Trump himself admits, pushing his body around is incredibly difficult, no matter how fit your job. So what’s the exercise that keeps the commander in chief on track? Literally a hundred.”
A hundred of what? Don’t worry about it! It’s literally a hundred. In fact, I’d argue that Grover understands Trump’s manner of speech better than you or I do. Can you not imagine a reporter asking his fitness routine during a press conference, to Trump explaining, “I always do a hundred—some people think you can do less than a hundred. Some have said that Obama did less than a hundred—which is why I still want to see a valid birth certificate. But I do a hundred. Always a hundred. No less than a hundred.”
Grover does its so job convincingly, it even fools itself. It can detect its own generated fake news 92% of the time—that means 8% of the time, it can’t detect its own fakery.
In the long term, researchers believe that tools like Grover, presented with clear methodologies to reproduce and deconstruct fake news, are necessary to prevent the inevitable spread of malicious fake news.