Having Coffee With . . . Walter Scheirer

Toward the ‘imagination superhighway’

Author: Brett Beasley ’22MTS

Schreier Featured Scheirer: Fears flare up with the arrival of a new technology. Photo by Matt Cashore ’94

What we talk about when we talk about fake media online: fear and the future. The idea of a future filled with even more deep-fake videos, digital forgeries and online disinformation is enough to send real shivers of foreboding down our spines.

But not so for Walter Scheirer. Finding out what is fake online is one of Scheirer’s research specialties. Ask him about fake media, and he will tell you a positive story about the past.

“Since I came from a multidisciplinary background, I’ve always liked to step back from technical problems and think about the social implications of technologies,” says Scheirer, the Dennis O. Doughty Collegiate Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering. His lab specializes in “media integrity” — discovering whether and how media have been manipulated.

In his new book, A History of Fake Things on the Internet, Scheirer shares what he has learned about fakes — not so much how to spot them, but rather how to understand how they shape our culture and society.

Book Cover

Scheirer, a former hacker, began his university education by studying international relations. He stumbled into computer science by accident while working in a research lab to earn extra money. Before he landed at Notre Dame in 2015, he earned a doctorate focused on artificial intelligence, helped found a startup company and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University’s Center for Brain Science.

If it took a scholar like Scheirer to write a book like A History of Fake Things on the Internet, it also took a place like Notre Dame.

“At other computer science departments around the country, I probably would not have been able to write this book. I would have been encouraged to stay in my lane and focus on developing new algorithms. But here at Notre Dame, it is the opposite,” he says. “Broad projects like this are the ones that resonate the most with our students and faculty.”

Scheirer wrote the book during his 2020-21 academic year fellowship at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Study, which put him in conversation with scholars and practitioners in disciplines ranging from politics to technology to the arts. They were united by a common research theme about “the nature of trust.”

“Being in dialogue with people from different disciplines helped my writing immensely. It gave me leads I otherwise would not have had, and it challenged me to conceptualize fakes in a way that is very different from most computer scientists,” Scheirer says.

The need to look outward at other disciplines and backward into the past became evident to Scheirer while he was conducting highly technical aspects of his research. With support from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, his lab was working on two projects focused on ways to spot manipulated media.

“I noticed something about many of the computer scientists I was working with. For them, ‘fake’ meant bad — anything manipulated was inherently suspicious,” Scheirer says. “But that didn’t square with my experiences of the internet. We needed a richer story about how these media were being used online.”

As Scheirer and his research team eventually discovered, most manipulated images circulating online were surprisingly innocuous.

“Much of what we were seeing was not made by some foreign adversary to execute a coordinated disinformation campaign,” he says. “Most of it was parody or satire, and it was often created for a particular group that can understand its layers of meaning. It was often only dangerous when outsiders to that community misunderstood it.”

As it turned out, much of the fake media on the internet was not traditional political propaganda at all but rather what he calls “participatory fakery” — media created by regular people, mostly in the form of memes.

Scheirer developed his hunch that the basic forms of online fakery had not changed much over the past few decades, even if the speed and scale had increased. So he combed through internet history. He detected a hype cycle that played out over and over: Fears flared up with the arrival of a new technology.

We were phobic toward Photoshop in the 1990s. We were averse to the Metaverse in 2021. Those fears largely fizzled when the dreaded catastrophe failed to materialize.

If the internet’s history reveals the surprising truth that things are not as bad as they seem, Scheirer thinks it also holds clues about how life online could become better. “Massive, global social media platforms where everyone is talking to everyone else all at once — those will never be a reliable source of facts,” he says.

But rather than subject social media to ever-tighter rules and regulations, Scheirer suggests we rethink our expectations for the internet.

“In the 1990s, we began calling the internet the ‘information superhighway,’ but to try to force a vision for the internet that is ‘just the facts’ — that isn’t realistic or even feasible,” Scheirer says. “In fact, the ‘information superhighway’ is itself a kind of fiction.”

Having scoured many of the internet’s darkest alleys in search of its long-forgotten fakes, Scheirer remains optimistic about the internet’s potential.

“The internet may not be a purely rational database for knowledge, but it is something better than that,” he says. “It is an extension of the human imagination. So there is a positive side to the story of online fakes — or what I would prefer to call fictions — that all too often we neglect.”

Brett Beasley is a writer and editorial program manager for Notre Dame Research.