With the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks fast approaching, attention is turning to how Americans are still grappling with the legacy of that day. Acclaimed filmmaker Spike Lee is among those who created documentaries about the subject, but following backlash over including conspiracy theorists in his HBO series, he's backtracking.
According to Variety, Lee is "back in the editing room and looking at the eighth and final chapter of 'NYC EPICENTERS 9/11–>2021½.'"
"I Respectfully Ask You To Hold Your Judgement Until You See The FINAL CUT," Lee says in a statement sent by HBO.
The statement comes following a report that the final episode of Lee's series "NYC EPICENTERS 9/11–>2021½," which premiered this weekend, includes extensive interviews with members of the conspiracy group Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth.
This group pushes the debunked theory that the World Trade Center towers were destroyed not by al-Qaeda, but a controlled demolition.In an interview with the New York Times, Lee seemed to subtly push this theory as well, admitting he still has "questions" about what really happened on 9/11, and telling the paper, "The amount of heat that it takes to make steel melt, that temperature's not reached. And then the juxtaposition of the way Building 7 fell to the ground — when you put it next to other building collapses that were demolitions, it's like you're looking at the same thing.
"But people going to make up their own mind. My approach is put the information in the movie and let people decide for themselves. I respect the intelligence of the audience."
"NYC EPICENTERS 9/11–>2021½" commemorates 20 years since the Sept. 11 attacks took place in 2001, and is the product of hundreds of interviews conducted by Lee that explore the impacts of 9/11 and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, on New York City. Its final episode, which will fittingly air on Friday, Sept. 11, is the episode that had featured the controversial, debunked theories in question, which Lee and HBO have since announced they are editing.
Media critics who received the docuseries to screen in advance have objected to how the final episode (which has now been pulled from review consideration) features extensive interviews with conspiracy theorists alongside interviews with experts who have researched 9/11 and its impacts for years including Shyam Sunder, who researched the attacks for the National Institute of Standards and Technology. According to the New York Times, at one point in the episode, when Sunder asks Lee if he's sufficiently explained the events of 9/11 to the director, Lee laughs and responds, "Not really." In contrast, the Times suggests that at times, it appears the documentary sides with conspiracy theorists.
Slate's Jeremy Stahl has compared the episode to "presenting Covid-19 vaccine skeptics in a debate alongside Anthony Fauci, or Holocaust deniers alongside the Simon Wiesenthal Center, or a clique of climate change skeptics alongside the authors of the United Nations IPCC report."
Conspiracy theories about the truth about 9/11, some of which wrongheadedly assert the terror attack was an "inside job" carried out by the Bush administration, are often given the meme treatment or laughed off on social media. But experts have concerningly linked the success of 9/11 theories through the years to the success of some of the most dangerous conspiracy theories that have poisoned our politics, today.
As we await the final cut of the last episode of Lee's "NYC EPICENTERS 9/11–>2021½," for all its controversy, it includes highly anticipated interviews with leading public figures like Jon Stewart, Rosie Perez, Jeffrey Wright, John Turturro, Chuck Schumer, Bill De Blasio, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and more.
"NYC EPICENTERS 9/11–>2021½" airs Sundays after "Last Week Tonight" on HBO and streams on HBO Max, with the final episode premiering on Saturday, Sept. 11.
Bogus but hyper-realistic videos of Donald Trump secretly plotting with Russian President Vladimir Putin or President Joe Biden in a secret White House confab with antifa activists? Entirely fake speeches delivered by Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) or Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN)?
All possible now. Just watch the wouldn’t-have-been-possible-in-2020 deepfake video starring a computer generated Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who’s depicted as desperately trying to convince his colleagues in “The Office” that he’s not wearing women’s clothes. Donald Trump Jr. is among the people who've shared it on social media in recent days.
Among the most unprepared for AI-infused election shenanigans: members of Congress themselves.
“I haven't heard it talked about here,” Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) told Raw Story when asked about deepfakes and AI impacting Election 2024.
It’s not that the the Capitol isn’t buzzing with AI regulatory chatter since OpenAI CEO Sam Altman testified before lawmakerslast Tuesday — including telling Hawley that even he is “nervous” about large language learning platforms, such as his company’s ChatGPT, being used to manipulate voters. The problem: this was news to many at the Capitol.
That’s why experts are nervous, too, especially since AI technology is evolving at warp speed.
“Congress should have been proactive yesterday — decades ago,” Woodrow Hartzog, professor of Law at Boston University, told Raw Story.
Congress has a ton of catching up to do, mainly because U.S. policymakers — at the behest of Silicon Valley’steams of Washington lobbyists — have dithered for years in writing rules for the digital road, more or less allowing tech companies to police themselves.
“At the very least, it needs to think about the fact that this is not just a technology and deepfakes problem, that the problem of deepfakes in our democracy is rooted in significantly broader structural concerns around tech accountability, generally, mixed with our laws surrounding privacy, surveillance, free expression, copyright law, equality and anti-discrimination,” Hartzog continued. “All of those seemingly disparate areas — and the cracks that have been growing in our protections around them — are part of this story.”
How dangerous, really?
Artificial intelligence offers great promise of taking humanity to new technological heights.
But the ability to create increasingly realistic fake media is getting easier by the nanosecond, too. What formerly required specialized expertise — not to mention days and weeks worth of time; thus dedication — only to concoct clunky deepfakes is now available to all. The democratization of fakes has many experts freaked out.
It’s easy to see how AI-based deceptions, propaganda and scams could damage an election’s status as truly free and fair, even if just a small fraction of voters are affected.
Consider that the 2016 election was decided by some 80,000 votes across three states. Countless bots and Russian intelligence officers involved themselves (if Senate Republicans are to be believed). Campaign operatives — domestic and foreign, and as bad as they can be — have nothing on AI’s powers (if its creators are to be believed). Especially when combined with today’s always-improving deepfake technology, the ability to dupe is almost easy.
“Think about this as nuclear technology,” Siwei Lyu, a SUNY Empire Innovation Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at the University at Buffalo, told Raw Story. “Right now, instead of just the U.S. government and a few governments in the world knowing the techniques for making atomic bombs, like everybody now can have a toolkit off of Amazon to make their own atomic bombs. How dangerous that could be, right?”
Lyu continued: “Of course, somebody may use that as a generator to power up my house and then I don't need to be on the electricity grid anymore, but there are people for sure who will misuse it — and those are the things we have very little control over. So that's really where the problem is.”
The fear for Election 2024 isn’t, necessarily, one big, earth-altering digital atomic explosion; the fear is dozens, hundreds or even thousands of personal smart bombs — polished, powered and propelled by generative AI — being quietly dropped on susceptible-to-vulnerable populations in swing states.
They might originate from domestic sources: say, unscrupulous super PACs or lone-wolf political agitators unconcerned about the nation’s largely antiquated election laws and regulations that, in some cases, haven’t been updated since the dawn of the World Wide Web. If that.
Worse, they could come from foreign actors — think Russia, or perhaps Iran and North Korea — who’ve already demonstrated an insatiable appetite for sowing chaos in U.S. elections.
“The makers of deepfakes will create those fake media to reinforce, strengthen your belief, and then the recommendation algorithm will actually push that to you as a user so you will start to see more of this stuff,” Lyu said.
This will all be guided by the private data of millions of Americans, which Silicon Valley firms already have access to because of congressional inaction. When fed into generative AI platforms like ChatGPT the algorithmic loop of fear-drenched, truthy sounding falsehoods and fakes could prove infinite.
'Got to move fast'
Back on Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is now a part of bipartisan negotiations – along with Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), Todd Young (R-IN) and Mike Rounds (R-SD) – focused on legislating artificial intelligence.
“We can’t move so fast that we do flawed legislation, but there is no time for waste, or delay, or sitting back,” Schumer told his colleagues on the Senate floor after Altman testified. “We got to move fast."
There’s only a short window to act, because generative AI is becoming ubiquitous – more than 100 million people have already signed up for ChatGPT alone.
“And so while it is important for Congress to act, I hope that they realize that can't just pass one anti-deepfake law of 2023 and dust their hands and call it a day, because this problem is one that is significantly larger than just a few algorithmic tools,” Hartzog, the BU law professor and co-author of Breached: Why Data Security Law Fails and How to Improve It, told Raw Story. “It's fundamental to our whole sort of media information distribution networks and free expression and consumer protection laws.”
Other lawmakers don’t feel the same pressure. Many assume America’s safer than other nations when it comes to AI-powered deepfakes.
“I think in a more advanced ecosystem, like our new system, it's probably easier for campaigns to jump on it pretty quickly and knock it down. I think in the developing world it could start riots and civil wars,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, recently told Raw Story.
Others in Congress – including party leaders – think the government is largely helpless when it comes to preventing the deepfake-ification of American elections.
“All we can do is tell the truth and appeal to the public not to believe everything they hear and see,” Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), the Senate majority whip, told Raw Story.
While 2020 was the "alternative fact” election, 2024 is primed to be the alternative reality election. “Fake news” isn’t just a bumper sticker anymore; it’s now reality.
“We’re in it,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) told Raw Story, “and AI is making it exponentially easier to create a false narrative, to project that false narrative worldwide, to make the false narrative believable by creating much more detailed and thorough content and it will be very hard to take something that’s disseminated worldwide and knock it down as false.”
Gillibrand has been calling for the creation of a new federal Data Protection Agency for years now, arguing the Federal Trade Commission is toothless when it comes to regulating big tech. The Federal Election Commission, meanwhile, often takes years to reach any agreement on even the most modest updates to its political advertising regulations.
“I think we have to keep focusing on the truth and making sure we have levers of government and a legal system to create accountability and oversight to make sure the truth is protected,” Gillibrand said.
Legislating "truth" in a post-truth political universe may prove impossible, but we really won’t know until the dust settles after Election 2024. That’s why many lawmakers, experts and privacy advocates are bracing for an election like no other in U.S. history.
“Every anti-democratic trick in the book will be played in 2024. No doubt,” Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) – a Trump impeachment manager and member of the select Jan. 6 committee – recently told Raw Story. “The guy dines with racists and anti-Semites, Trump seems determined to prove that he can do anything he wants, including shoot somebody on Fifth Avenue, and his cult following will not budge. So this is where we are in the 21st century.”
Fox News host Rachel Campos-Duffy accused public schools of using Covid-19 relief funds to install saunas in the facilities.
Fox & Friends co-host Joey Jones kicked off a segment on Sunday with the story about a third grader at Public School 145 who wrote a letter about her school being overcrowded.
"This year, we lost our library, music room, and STEAM room, and I'm happy that we have a lot of new kids, but it's not okay that we don't have enough space," the 8-year-old student said.
"No hate in their heart whatsoever, but they're pointing to a problem which is, hey, if you're going to invite a whole lot more people here, we got to have somewhere to have school," Jones said, referring to undocumented immigrants.
"Yeah, I'm still trying to get over the fact that they have a steam room!" Campos-Duffy exclaimed, confusing science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics (STEAM) programs with saunas.
"Did I read that right?" she asked. "Yeah, maybe I read that wrong. Wow, schools changed. Maybe we did give them too much COVID money."
Fearing a 2024 ballot headed by now-indicted Donald Trump will cripple the Republican Party's hopes to retain the House and win back the Senate, GOP campaign consultants and moderate Republicans are growing increasingly frustrated that they have been unable to come up with one candidate who can bump the former president off of his perch.
The Politico report notes that what appears to be a massive influx of 2024 GOP presidential nomination contenders, most with little to no chance of being successful, will make it easier for the former president to land his third nomination.
According to Republican Jason Osborne, the New Hampshire House majority leader, "If those people are all still in the race when January comes around, it’s going to be 2016 all over again, and Trump will win,” before lamenting, "That’s just how it is.”
Politico reports, "For Trump, the swelling field is just the latest dose of good luck for a politician who has for years played by rules afforded to no other candidate. He has seemingly become inoculated from blowback to scandals both major and minor that would threaten to fatally wound almost anyone else. The GOP graded his own pair of rambling and lackluster announcement speeches — both in 2016 and again in 2022 — on a curve that did not apply to [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis’ shambolic Twitter launch last week."
Conservative strategist Sarah Longwell explained, "For those of us who view Donald Trump as an existential threat, we’re kind of tearing our hair out over this idea of a crowded field and a repeat of the same dynamics in 2016."
Republican strategist Gregg Keller contributed, "Every person that gets into the race helps Donald Trump be the focal point of the race. You would think it would muddy the water — in fact, it does the exact opposite. It focuses more and more attention on him, to the extent he’s beating these people, attacking these people, stealing the limelight in the way he wants to from these people.”
Former Rep. Joe Walsh claimed DeSantis is already faltering which means the party is likely stuck with Trump.
“He’s been an unlikable son of a bitch. He’s not wearing well,” he explained. “So whereas the field would have been Trump and DeSantis, really, four or five months ago, now you’ve got all these other people who are getting in or are going to get in purely because they’ve seen the same thing … They’re all going to make the bet, well, ‘F--k this. I’ll be the Trump alternative.”