None of what I have written above is meant to give Genevan Commons a mere clean bill of health. Once the distorting effects of the deepfake are removed, as best as they can be, there still appear to be a number of commentators who engaged in unbecoming and sinful rhetorical behavior. All who did so should repent. But the number of explicit sins of this kind are in fact a comparatively small subset of the larger number — a thousand members who were participating in a group always in motion, and a group which changed over time.
I was recently doxed and deepfaked. If you don’t know what that means, I will explain. For now, let’s just say that it doesn’t make for a good weekend.
A new blog was launched which aimed to expose a secret group of misogynistic pastors and elders. It consists of screenshots, illicitly taken from a private Facebook group called Genevan Commons. The sensational comments nearly all appear within running threads, threads with many participants and many comments. And truly, some of the comments were indeed offensive. Several showed immature jesting, and some went further, involving cruelty and authoritarianism. The comments which fit these categories are absolutely sinful and require repentance.
My initial reaction was grief for the women who had been named and mistreated in the comments, as well as all of the other women who would be hurt by these screenshots. I cannot imagine the depth of pain that this all caused. Then I reflected upon my own inclusion in the group. “Did I really see all that stuff?” I asked myself. “Did I laugh along with all that?” My anxiety spiked. I soon began to receive various upset messages. Most of these, it has to be said, were entirely gracious and sincere. My experience was not like that of some others listed on the dox site, who report receiving abuse and even outright threats. No my comments were people expressing their disappointment in my behavior and letting me know that I had really let them down. So my desire was to do some soul-searching and then decide what I needed to repent of and how to do so in the appropriate way. I went to the Lord in prayer and sought counsel among trusted pastors for several days. One of these asked me to walk through as many of the details as possible. “You have to be specific for repentance to be real,” he said. After I laid out as much as I could, he gave me this reply:
“Brother, you’ve been deepfaked.”
What is Deepfaking?
Lindsay is a classical liberal writer who studies how certain academic methods in the social sciences are actually used as weapons against truth. In a May 2020 essay, he explains the concept of “deepfake methodology.” The term “deepfake” itself refers to video and audio manipulation, the ability to construct a video of an actual person, with their face and in their voice, saying things that they did not say. This often involves a technology which captures their words and then rearranges them in such a way to make it appear that an actual real event is being replayed rather than a synthetic reconstruction. Lindsay explains it this way:
[A] deepfake is something like an extension of a doctored photograph to include audio and especially video, which is only really possible using advanced machine-learning algorithms and fairly powerful computers. In the audio version, a deepfake will take snippets of a person’s voice and reconstruct how they speak, enabling the production of an audio clip that has them saying anything the creator wants. With video, it’s even more insidious, combining both the audio feature and the ability to replicate one’s face, facial movement, and facial expressions in a video setting.
Some popular deepfakes are simply entertaining, portraying celebrities saying outlandish or absurd things. But other deepfakes are malicious. The internet can now make people say, and do, literally anything. What makes deepfakes so powerful is that the average audience cannot know that what they are seeing isn’t real. They are faked out in the deepest way possible.
But as Lindsay explains, this same methodology can be applied to things other than video. He summarizes a recent controversy within the world of critical theory where two scholars employed this concept of “deepfake methodology” to explain how other scholars had manipulated a literary source. Lindsay quotes from the article making this argument, stating:
[The authors] generally use quotations radically out of context. They never study what is done in the texts they are “reading”. They say nothing about their own methodology or data selection and give no principles for interpretation. They do not define racism… and they don’t discuss at all what it means to read a theory and judge whether it is racist… If there is a methodology at play, it is deepfake in the sense that if you break a corpus of text down into small fragments, you can reassemble it to say anything you want.
Lindsey then summarizes the implications of this sort of thing:
Thus it is that activists, liberated from any obligation to truth and falsity and seeing objectivity as a myth (that’s used to maintain oppression, even), developed and deployed a deepfake methodology: “making somebody ‘speak’ by using splinters from them reassembled to produce meaning disconnected from the original texts.”
This methodology is essential to understand because the recent discernment blog claiming to expose the secrets of the Genevan Commons relies largely on this kind of deepfake. It chops up fragmentary statements from various people and then arranges them in a particular way in order to make them say what the discernment blogger wants them to say. This is a methodology which can very easily manipulate sincere onlookers, naturally appealing to their sense of decency and compassion and inviting them to defend the weak against those on the attack. It invites a reactionary response, and it can be extremely effective. The explanation that follows will not attempt to fully vindicate Genevan Commons. There have been several legitimate expressions of concern in the wake of all of this, and I will try to give my own thoughts about the moral and spiritual aspects below. But before we can do that, we also have to understand how many of us have been manipulated. And we need to see how it happened.
How Was I Deepfaked?
My situation was not a case of altered video and audio. But it was nevertheless a deepfake of the kind just described. To begin to see this, consider the challenge of adequately explaining what “context” actually means in online discourse.
Genevan Commons was a Facebook group. It was “private,” according to Facebook’s settings, which means that it was not open to the whole world, but it included over a thousand members for most of the time that I participated in it. The membership was originally diverse, and it discussed all sorts of topics. It was centered around Reformed theology, but like so many Facebook groups it could go in any direction at any given time. Over time, it became increasingly clear to me that an unhealthy ethos and tone was dominating the group. This was a gradual process, and some of my friends recognized it before I did. I “unfollowed” the group (which means I no longer saw its content) sometime in June of 2019, and I fully “left” (which means I deleted my membership) in early 2020, as a part of a general Facebook cleanup decision. I had not realized just how many groups I had joined or been added to over the years, and it was clear that most of them were unhelpful.
This explanation is necessary because, for most people, Facebook groups are not secret clubs with membership vows. Many people are even surprised to learn what groups they hold “membership” in. For a season at least, Facebook allowed for unilateral additions to groups. Members could add new members, and the new person did not even have to click a button. It’s also more than possible to participate in a comments thread without reading all of the other comments. Just check any busy page with lots of members. You’ll only be able to see two or perhaps three threads in a single screen view, and when you click on the “comments,” you will likely only see four or five comments, as Facebook collapses the rest. To see every comment, you have to make a point to click all of the “see more” or “view previous replies…” links and then scroll through dense comboxes:
For groups which put out a few thousand comments a day, most comments go unseen. This is simply how ordinary people use Facebook. They skim. They tune out noise. They learn rules like “Don’t feed the trolls.” In a group of twenty people, you can consider everyone a friend. In a group of a thousand, you hardly know most of the participants.
So right away, the framing of a Facebook group as being “complementarians behind closed doors,” as Christianity Today’s Ed Stetzer put it, is already rather fake. Such a description just doesn’t fit how social media actually works. But there are at least five more ways in which the Genevan Commons exposé is a deepfake.
- The organization of the evidence
The damaging material from Genevan Commons is featured in condensed blog forms and also in a lengthy archive. But this evidence is not organized in the way that it would have been in the actual Facebook group. It does not state the original post (the “OP”). Instead, it is organized according to shocking catch phrases. This gives the impression that the catch phrase represents the topic or thread on GC, the thing in which all of the commentators were participating. But in nearly every case, the problematic comment appears in the middle of a lengthy thread. Some people may join in that side trail, but most do not. One could question whether certain less offensive comments smoothed the way for greater offenses to be tolerated, and I am certainly asking myself those questions today, but this is a truth more easily known after the fact. Earlier commentators cannot be judged simply on the basis of later comments left by other people. Still, for the reader of the exposé to even see any of this relevant information, the information which would explain who actually said what and how, they must first pass through the “problematic” gate set up by the framing of the website. They have been conditioned to see a certain thing and to interpret all of what they see according to that interpretative lens.
- The “data dump” model
In addition to the misleading framing of the evidence, there is no sincere attempt at interpretation. Indeed, the need for interpretation is assumed to be unnecessary, since the screenshots are there for all to see. But the screenshots are provided in bulk, in a sort of data dump. The quantity of comments is meant to shock, and the header provided by the site’s editor, or the summary explanation provided by various online promoters, is meant to suffice. This is similar to a headline which does not accurately reflect the body of an article. Ordinary readers will accept this framing and assume that most of the many comments are more or less alike.