The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What a cheerleading squad, a mom’s arrest and deepfakes reveal about regulating technology

This image made from video of a fake video featuring former president Barack Obama shows elements of facial mapping used in new technology that lets anyone make videos of real people appearing to say things they've never said. (AP)
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It’s hard to imagine a more viral combination of words than the ones that appeared in a headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer last week: “A Bucks County woman created ‘deepfake’ videos to harass rivals on her daughter’s cheerleading squad, DA says.” The specter of a suburban mom allegedly employing a sinister new technology to improve her child’s standing in the high school rat-race is both riveting and horrible, especially at a moment of grave concern about the social costs of online misinformation.

Even so, it’s worth remembering that the saga of Raffaela Spone is more about parenting gone awry than it is about the specific tools she stands accused of using to menace her daughter’s classmates. It’s one thing to regulate technology, and quite another to rein in the creative genius that human beings — and ambitious parents, in particular — bring to being awful to each other.

So-called deepfakes — in this case, photos that police say Spone edited to make it look like members of the traveling cheerleading squad had posed nude or were smoking or drinking — prompt a particular concern for very good reasons.

More so than Internet rumors or rants by conspiracy theorists, such highly realistic doctored images and videos look like primary sources that make them harder to refute. People who want to believe that President Biden is too old for his job, for example, may embrace altered video purporting to show him nodding off in a meeting. Unscrupulous people might appropriate others’ faces, voices and bodies for their own ends, attributing ideas to people that they don’t actually hold or editing others into pornography. Reality may come to seem so unstable that even true documentary evidence, such as photographs of the liberation of Nazi concentration camps, is treated with skepticism.

If Spone hadn’t been arrested and charged with six counts of harassment — she allegedly sent the girls the doctored images from an anonymous account and suggested they commit suicide — it’s easy to imagine terrible consequences. (Spone’s first court appearance comes on March 30.) Had the harassment escalated to posting the photos online, the girls might have been targeted by their peers, had to deal with questions from college admissions officers and reactions from potential partners and employers for years to come.

Still, that’s not really why this story resonates. Just as important as the specific tools used was the alleged impulse for a parent to become so deeply involved in her child’s social and extracurricular life. This isn’t something new: the idea of the helicopter parent was popularized in the 1990s and early 2000s. And if parents’ sense of investment was intense when successive generations of Americans could expect to achieve a better standard of living than what they were born into, it’s nothing compared with the frenzy inspired by the specter of downward mobility many now fear.

Lest technology gets the blame here, it’s worth revisiting the tale of Wanda Holloway. In 1991, Holloway, a Texas mother, approached her inept former brother-in-law for help hiring a hitman. Her target? The mother and daughter Holloway believed were standing in the way of her daughter Shanna being elected cheerleader. When Holloway decided two murders were out of her budget, she settled for knocking off the other mother, reasoning that the death of her mom would upset the other girl so much she wouldn’t be able to compete.

Holloway’s arrest, subsequent trials and plea deal set off a frenzy too gleeful and frivolous to qualify as a moral panic. But as Mimi Swartz explained in a thoughtful feature about the case for Texas Monthly, Holloway’s murder-for-hire scheme was just the apex of a pyramid of bad parental behavior in the world of cheerleading, which has included everything from rumor-mongering to bomb threats.

“Here, a smaller, diminished view of life has a way of eclipsing larger ones,” Swartz wrote at the time about the town Holloway lived in, but also, presciently, about what would become a larger American phenomenon. Residents “know just how harsh life can be and so have learned to keep their dreams modest, in check. Most often, they pass them on, unfulfilled, to their kids.”

Tech companies and tools make for convenient targets in the fight against pressing social ailments: They do have tremendous power, and they make human frailties and venom visible on a global scale. But magnifying these problems, or even algorithmically intensifying terrible ideas, is not the same as inventing them.

If some enterprising regulator can figure out how to make deepfakes consistently visible as counterfeits, and if some social media company comes up with the gold standard in community standards and content moderation, more power to them. But until parents learn to untangle their own dreams and disappointments of their children, there always will be some who cross the line between behavior that is merely distasteful and that which is outright criminal. The weapons they choose will be different. Their colossal failures as parents will be the same.

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