LEWISTON — When the Senate Intelligence Committee began investigating how the Russians interfered in the last presidential election, it focused mostly on computer hacking.

But Sen. Angus King, Maine’s junior senator who sits on the committee, no longer thinks that is the big issue.

He said he believes “the most important part of the story” is the way Russians used social media as a weapon against the United States and the 2016 election.

“And it’s still happening,” he said Wednesday.

Sen. Angus King says it is important that Americans become more savvy about what they see and hear. Staff photo by John Ewing

Challenging as the problem already is, King said, it is about to get much worse. And he’s not confident that a public now accustomed to doubting both the media and law enforcement will cope with the growing threat.

The senator is worried about something called a “deep fake,” an unfamiliar term for most Americans but not something new. It is not much different from the digital manipulation used in the movies for years to enhance or alter reality to show convincing video that appears real.

As U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., recently said during a speech to The Heritage Foundation in Washington, software to manipulate reality to create seemingly realistic audio and video is widely available and becoming ever easier to use.

King said it is now easy to conjure up a realistic-looking, computer-generated video showing him talking about something that is completely fake.

“For somebody in my line of work,” King said, “it’s pretty damn unsettling.”

Rubio, who serves on the intelligence panel with King, said fake video can be created of a public figure taking a bribe or making an insensitive racial comment.

It would look real, he said. “It’s your face. It’s your voice. It’s you.”

Except, of course, it is not.

Rubio, who serves on the intelligence panel with King, an independent, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, said that two years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin “tried to sow instability and chaos in American politics,” and it worked.

“We have a society at each other’s throat,” he said.

The Russians haven’t yet used fake video and fake audio recordings, Rubio said. But consider what happens if they do, he said.

During the opening of his field office in Auburn last week, King said a “deep fake” video could show him saying something he never uttered, which could then spread like wildfire on social media.

Once it is out there, King said, “you can never really rebut it” fast enough or thoroughly enough to let reality catch up with the lie.

King said there is no way to predict when something might come out, or to figure out where it came from.

Talking to digital marketing experts Wednesday at Rinck Advertising on Lisbon Street, King said he was sure they could see the threat.

Peter Rinck, chief executive officer, said that although his firm uses digital technology for good, he understands “the danger that’s really out there to democracy.”

It does not help, said the company’s president, Laura Rinck, that “trust is eroding” in the traditional media.

“It’s very disturbing what’s happening in this country,” she said, when President Trump is calling the press “an enemy of the people” and crowds at his rally are shrieking at journalists.

Laura Rinck said it could take years to undo the damage done by Trump to some of the nation’s institutions.

“Can you even do it in a generation?” she said. “How far can we slide?”

At The Heritage Foundation, University of Maryland Law Professor Danielle Citron said the worst-case scenario involving “deep fake” tactics is bad.

She said people “could lose faith in our public discourse” as it becomes ever harder to know what is true. In the end, she fears, authoritarian leaders may be the ones to decide.

Chris Begler, a senior staff scientist at Google AI, an expert in artificial intelligence, said software detectors may be able to keep up with the improving technology so that it will be possible to know which recordings are true and which are fake.

Whatever happens, King said, it is important that Americans become more savvy about what they see and hear.

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