Someone calling herself “Alexa,” and claiming to represent “a major Democratic presidential candidate” started calling the office starting in the middle of last week, asking for one of my free initial consultations. I’ve been extremely busy lately, and there really weren’t any openings in my schedule, so I kept putting them off. I have to admit, however, that their persistence finally triumphed, as Gretchen got tired of this person calling three or four times a day and told me, “Either you stop giving free initial consultations, accept requests within three days of the first call, accept requests after ten attempts to get one, or find yourself another private secretary.” I’m sure she wasn’t serious about that last part, but nobody ever accused her of being shy about speaking her mind, either. So after that, I told her to ask around to reschedule somebody or find a cancellation and book this person at the first opportunity. Once Gretchen told this person our plan, they stopped calling, reducing the level of Gretchen’s annoyance with her job below the boiling point. On Thursday, it came to pass that the Deputy Assistant Attaché for Petroleum Economics at the Embassy of the Republic of Uzbekistan was recalled to Tashkent due to an incident at a cocktail party in Georgetown involving a Russian, the Russian’s Cossack wife and the Deputy Assistant Attaché, concerning to what use the couple put their Great Dane hound, and of course, how Russians and Cossacks behave generally. That, in turn, created an opening at eleven-thirty Friday morning, into which Gretchen deftly slid “Alexa,” the “representative of a major Democratic candidate.”
Tom: Good morning. This is Tom Collins.
Alexa: This is Alexa – I told your receptionist? I’m with a major Democratic candidate?
Tom: And speak not only in uptalk, but also with an highly pronounced vocal fry. You must be a Millennial.
Alexa: Uptalk? Vocal fry?
Tom: And are, apparently, blissfully unaware of doing either. On that basis alone, I am narrowing down the list of “major Democratic candidates” whom you might represent to Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Betto O’Rourke or Andrew Yang. Am I right?
Alexa: Um… I’d rather not say?
Tom: Are you willing to let me know if it’s one of those?
Alexa: I’m not sure they’d appreciate that?
Tom: Sure – no problem, I understand. And by the way, that’s not my receptionist you’ve been talking to about scheduling an appointment. Gretchen is my private secretary.
Alexa: Private secretary?
Tom: You’ve never heard of a private secretary?
Tom: Tell me, Alexa, when the little hand is between the four and the five and the big hand is on the eight, what time is it?
Alexa: Um… I’m a digital native?
Tom: That does it – you’re definitely a Millennial.
Alexa: Yeah, I guess I am?
Tom: But… can you tell me where Java is?
Alexa: Where? Java’s a kind of coffee?
Alexa: Yeah, like Java mocha?
Tom: Are you aware that Java is also place?
Alexa: No, I’ve never heard of a place called Java?
Tom: I wasn’t actually expecting you to, frankly. How does it feel to be named after the Amazon digital assistant home robot?
Alexa: I was named Alexa before they had those?
Tom: Of course you were – lots of young ladies these days were. Do you have one of those robots at home?
Alexa: We can’t? Because if we did, it would think we’re talking to it instead of talking to me? So we have Google Home instead?
Tom: Not Siri?
Alexa: We did, but my sister’s named Sari? And that sounds too much like Siri, and Siri thought we were talking to it? So we had to get a Google Home?
Tom: You live with your sister?
Tom: Just the two of you?
Alexa: No, there’s my parents and my three brothers, too? All the kids in the family have big college loan debts and can’t move out?
Tom: But the Democratic candidate you represent, they are going to change that?
Alexa: I sure hope so, because my parents want to sell the house and move to Florida?
Tom: I’ll bet they do. So – how can I help you this morning?
Alexa: First of all? I was told this is free?
Tom: True. My initial consultations are without charge.
Alexa: And my candidate told me, they say you’re the smartest person in Washington DC?
Tom: Which is a lot like being the tallest building in Baltimore.
Alexa: What’s Baltimore?
Tom: May I ask where you are at the moment?
Tom: In that case, I will just say yes, I have been called the smartest person in Washington, DC. Baltimore is a nearby city not noted for having very tall buildings, however.
Alexa: I don’t understand?
Tom: It’s an analogy.
Alexa: I don’t do analog? Analog’s from a long time ago, like 1980 or something?
Tom: Right. Never mind. What sort of problem does the major Democratic candidate whom you represent have, which you wish to discuss with me?
Alexa: You know, you talk kind of funny?
Tom: I talk funny? Well, okay, you’re a Millennial Democratic presidential campaign representative from the West Coast and I’m an East Coast professional policy consultant, so I’ll stipulate to the fact that, to someone who works at the Hy-Vee in Peoria, for example, we probably both talk funny.
Alexa: What’s a Hy-Vee?
Tom: It’s a type of supermarket.
Alexa: Where’s Peoria?
Tom: Well, there are several places with that name, but the proverbial Peoria is Illinois.
Alexa: Oh yeah, I’ve heard of Illinois? Obama was from there?
Tom: Yes, he was a US senator from Illinois.
Alexa: What’s ‘proverbial?’
Tom: Time-honored, traditional, legendary – Peoria, Illinois is the proverbial All American town.
Alexa: I think you use way too many SAT words? Nobody can understand you when you talk like that?
Tom: Some people can – my paying clients, for instance. What are you calling me about?
Alexa: My candidate is worried about deep fake videos?
Tom: You mean those phony videos people create using TensorFlow and FakeApp?
Alexa: Yeah, those?
Tom: The ones where somebody can use artificial intelligence programs to analyze real videos of a person – your candidate, for example – and teach the AI to make a fake video of them doing and saying things that never happened and they never would say, not in a million years?
Alexa: That’s right? My candidate is really, really concerned that some fascist creep on Reddit or 4Chan or something like that, or even Facebook, could make a video of them saying they want the Communists to run the government, or that they want the FBI to take everybody’s guns away?
Tom: Actually, I think it would be the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives that would take away everybody’s guns, but I get your point.
Alexa: No, the FBI would do that?
Tom: The Federal Marshals and the FBI might help the BATFE do it, but it would be a Treasury task, not a DOJ job.
Alexa: That can’t be right? The Treasury takes care of printing the money and stuff like that?
Tom: Yes, well, when you arrive in Washington DC after your candidate’s amazing victory, with a big, important job as part of his or her presidential transition staff, you can stop by my office in person and I will explain things such as that to you in detail. Then, of course, I will be charging my usual hourly rates.
Alexa: So this is like when Whole Foods gives away free avocado toast and expects that later you will come in and buy their avocados?
Tom: Yes, exactly, and, I might add, spoken like a true Californian. So let me guess here – your candidate is so very concerned about this because, truth be told, the American public hasn’t had much of an opportunity to see or hear what they are really like. Your candidate has given many inspiring speeches about general concepts or values, and, perhaps, has spoken out against the current administration, but has avoided saying anything too specific up to this point while they are building their name recognition.
Alexa: Um… yeah… that sounds about right?
Tom: So things are very… fragile… at this point, image-wise, correct?
Alexa: Yeah, that’s true? People don’t know my candidate well enough to know the difference between a real video of them and a fake one? The voters couldn’t tell if what they were saying in some video was what they really mean, or what they would really do, or how they would really decide about things or not?
Tom: So if someone were to make a deep fake video of Julian Castro announcing that his real father is Fidel Castro, people know so little about him that a significant portion of the electorate might be convinced that Fidel somehow managed to accomplish such an obviously improbable feat?
Alexa: My candidate is not Julian Castro?
Tom: Of course not. Julian Castro would never have someone who talks like you on his staff.
Alexa: There’s nothing wrong with the way I talk?
Tom: Not wrong, just inappropriate for someone like Julian Castro’s image. Now, if you had a thick Salvadoran accent, you see, that would sell like hotcakes in his campaign.
Alexa: I’ve never heard of hotcakes?
Tom: Of course you haven’t. Maybe I should have said “pupusas” instead. Sorry.
Alexa: I’ve never heard of pupusas, either?
Tom: Oh, right – California – how about tacos, then?
Alexa: I don’t eat them?
Tom: No? Not even an avocado taco?
Alexa: They put cheese on them? I’m a vegan?
Tom: You could make your own vegan tacos, though, couldn’t you?
Alexa: I don’t cook?
Tom: I see. Well, “selling like hotcakes” is just a figure of speech, anyway.
Alexa: I don’t know what a figure of speech is?
Tom: But you have college debt?
Tom: So you went to college and got a degree?
Tom: In what, may I ask?
Alexa: Women and feminist studies?
Tom: And how much college debt did you ring up getting a degree in that?
Alexa: Uh… about eighty-seven thousand dollars?
Tom: So I bet you’re very enthusiastic about Democratic proposals to relieve the student loan debt crisis.
Alexa: Well, duh? What do you think? I’m not stupid?
Tom: And does the candidate you represent favor that particular campaign platform plank?
Alexa: Plank? I don’t plank? I’ve never planked? My oldest brother did that, years ago, but not me?
Tom: Oh, never mind. Okay, so, for instance, if somebody made a deep fake video of Seth Moulton saying his administration would put a twenty-thousand dollar federal sales tax on SUVs and use the money to build a national railroad system to replace jet airplanes and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, thus saving the planet from disastrous global warming, nobody would be able to tell if he really wants to do that or not.
Alexa: I don’t know who Seth Moulton is?
Tom: I’m not the least bit surprised, and that’s my point – Seth Moulton is a Democratic presidential candidate that practically nobody has heard of, and while his past policies have favored rail transportation improvements, he would never propose such a harebrained scheme. But who could tell? If someone made a deep fake video of him saying something like that, the time and resources necessary to debunk it would probably vitiate his campaign.
Alexa: I don’t know what “vitiate” means?
Tom: Okay, well, gut his campaign, cripple it, something like that.
Alexa: “Cripple” is micro-agressive hate speech? Please don’t talk like that?
Tom: I beg to differ. “Cripple” is only politically incorrect when used to describe a disabled person. As a normal English word used in a metaphorical sense to describe thwarting, stymieing, or, well, vitiating an endeavor or action, its use is perfectly acceptable.
Alexa: I disagree? This conversation is supposed to be a safe space?
Tom: Oh, whatever. If somebody were to make a deep fake video of Wayne Messam endorsing Louis Farrakhan, or if somebody made one of Joe Sestak advocating the use of nuclear weapons against Iran, or if somebody made one of Mike Gravel advocating tax breaks for fracking, or Michael Bennet endorsing legalized heroin, or Jay Inslee coming out for federally subsidized adoptions of white children by gay married black couples, or Steve Bullock promising free, anonymous abortion services on demand to any American female over the age of twelve, or…
Alexa: I’ve never heard of any of these people?
Tom: Of course you haven’t – they’re 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Aside from Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and as of yesterday, Kamala Harris, the vast majority of Americans have never heard of any of them, either, so don’t feel bad about it. Actually, I suspect that even your candidate may not be able to name all of them. And that’s what makes them all especially vulnerable to deep fake videos – the unfathomable abyss of anonymity, obscurity and nebulosity in which their public identities are lost.
Alexa: Okay? So that’s why I wanted to talk to you? I need to know what to tell my candidate they should do about it?
Tom: You mean, if someone makes a deep fake video of them doing and / or saying something calculated to discredit them?
Tom: Like them performing obscene acts with a barnyard animal, being apprehended shoplifting from a liquor store, or streaking stark naked through the funeral of a fallen war hero at Arlington Cemetery yelling quotes from Che Guevara?
Alexa: Eww? I can’t even think of stuff like that? Please stop being so disgusting? Who’s Che Guevara?
Tom: A Marxist.
Alexa: A what?
Tom: Never mind. Look, Alexa, you have to face the facts – with these sophisticated new software tools, miscreants can produce bogus videos that involve your candidate in products of their imagination far more disturbing than those examples.
Alexa: Okay, I accept that? Now tell me what my candidate should do about it if one of them gets on YouTube or something?
Tom: First of all, they should call a press conference to denounce it.
Alexa: A press conference? That would let everybody know what’s in the video? I don’t see how that would help?
Tom: It would help your candidate turn the situation to their advantage by using the video to increase their name recognition, widely publish the fact that the video is a fake, and gain public sympathy by portraying your candidate as the victim of an evil, vicious and inexcusable smear aimed at assassinating their good character.
Alexa: Oh, now I see what you mean?
Alexa: Then what?
Tom: Ignore it.
Alexa: We were talking about this at a campaign strategy meeting, and most of us think that the video should be taken down?
Tom: I understand the motivation, but I wouldn’t recommend making a big deal out of it. Your candidate’s press release should call for Facebook, YouTube or whatever to take down the video, but if they don’t, then nagging them to take it down afterward will make your candidate look like they are obsessed with or fixated, possibly opposed to free speech and maybe even a technophobe. So denounce the video, call for it to be taken down – once – and then move on and ignore it. Don’t worry, the liberals in the press will make sure everybody is reminded of how unfairly your candidate was treated by some wicked scoundrel or another, and that, in turn, will ensure continuing growth in name recognition and voter sympathy.
Alexa: Okay I get it? But is there some way to just get rid of deep fake videos?
Tom: Sure, I can tell you a guaranteed way to get rid of them.
Alexa: Wow, that would be fantastic? I’d sure like to hear about it?
Tom: All that would be necessary would be for someone to start making “documentary” deep fake videos that re-enact Donald Trump’s alleged high crimes and misdemeanors.
Alexa: Oh… my… God? Just thinking about that is ten times more disgusting than any of the stuff you’ve mentioned?
Tom: Indubitably! What if somebody made a deep fake video depicting him barging into the dressing rooms at various beauty contests, as was alleged by women who were there in 1997, 2000, 2001 and 2006? Or how about one of him negotiating with the Russians over a Moscow real estate deal during the 2016 election, offering Vladimir Putin a five million dollar condo in one of his buildings? Perhaps other viewers would prefer a deep fake documentary of Trump spilling classified information to the Russians in the Oval Office, or Trump on the telephone with his son Don Junior, hatching a criminal conspiracy with the Kremlin. And the overt sexual misconduct allegations could be an entire Internet mini-series! There’s Trump molesting Jessica Leeds, who was sitting next to him in first class on an airliner; Trump molesting Jennifer Murphy during an employment interview; Trump trapping Natasha Stoynoff alone in a room at Mar-a-Lago and forcibly French-kissing her; and Trump grabbing Nnni Laaksonen’s gluteus maximus backstage at the David Letterman show, just to mention a few. And what if someone made a deep fake video and pretended it was a copy of a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room surveillance tape taken in 1996, showing the incident when E. Jean Goodman says Donald Trump raped her?
Alexa: I think I’m going to be sick?
Tom: Consider it pre-placement training, Alexa, because if you intend on coming to Washington with your candidate after they get elected president, you’re going to need a really strong stomach. Here is where you will have to watch all the sausage being made.
Alexa: I didn’t know they make sausage in Washington? And why would I have to watch?
Tom: It’s a figure of… oh, never mind. Is there anything else I can do for you?
Alexa: No, I guess not?
Tom: Okay, in that case I guess we’re done then. Remember – the next time you call, you or your candidate’s campaign will be invoiced at my regular hourly rate, and Gretchen will need to take your billing information and run a credit check, so allow forty-eight hours prior to your desired consultation appointment date.
Alexa: Um… okay? Have a nice day?
Tom: You too, a good luck to you and your candidate’s campaign.