In Event of Moon Disaster is a deepfake video that was designed to be both an art installation and a pedagogical tool. It demonstrates the urgent need for media literacy education in an age of sophisticated disinformation. Produced within MIT’s Center for Advanced Virtuality and premiering at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, the video features a compilation of re-cut television footage of the 1969 lunar launch as well as an AI-generated Richard Nixon reading the contingency speech his administration had prepared in case the mission failed.
Teaching In Event of Moon Disaster as a case study within a media literacy curriculum highlights the dangers of disinformation as well as the importance of trustworthy media to the preservation of democracy. These concerns are more timely and relevant to students than ever: In an era of rising authoritarian populism, accompanying crackdowns on legitimate journalism outlets, and grassroots calls for environmental and racial justice, citizens need both credible information and a better understanding of how to engage with this fragmented media environment.
While media literacy initiatives vary widely across K-12 and college classrooms, they tend to focus on a constellation of interpretative practices, equipping students with the tools necessary to explore how different forms of media are created, used, and interpreted.
As a new and innovative form of malicious persuasion, “deepfakes” (a phrase that combines “deep learning” and the aim to deceive) use artificial intelligence to simulate peoples’ actions or utterances, presenting as real things that never actually happened. The most common and easiest-to-create deepfakes involves digitally placing a celebrity’s face onto another individual’s body. Other, more complex kinds of synthetic media such as In Event of Moon Disaster use a more nuanced combination of real and AI generated media. In this case a person delivers a speech that never occurred.
Since their emergence in late 2017, deepfakes have quickly moved from the realm of celebrity pornography to world entertainment and politics. Deepfakes threaten to disrupt elections, generate damaging rumors, and compromise the security of businesses. As they continue to grow more common and become easier to produce, their consequences will intensify.
Media literacy, of course, cannot provide a magic antidote to the tremendous upswell of disinformation. As a core pedagogical strategy, however, it can help students cultivate their inner critic, transforming them from passive consumers of media into a discerning public. Teaching deepfakes means teaching about the pernicious threat they pose, the various approaches to combating them, and the alternative uses of synthetic media. This effort consists of four complementary modes of inquiry: historical awareness, fine-grained interpretation, contextual research, and co-creative production.
These modes draw on the disciplines of information and library science as well as communication; however, equally important are the analytic practices that stem from humanities fields such as cinema and media studies, English, and history.
Here are an array of options for bringing emerging media and the topic of deepfakes into the classroom.