“Gradually, then suddenly.”

Ernest Hemingway fans will recognise this as the apparently contradictory yet ruefully truthful reply that Mike Campbell gives when he’s asked “How did you go bankrupt?” in Ernest Hemingway’s iconic novel The Sun Also Rises.

It’s an important concept. It might seem contradictory, (if its gradual, how is it sudden?) but it isn’t uncommon and can lead, as in Mike’s case, to catastrophe. When change is obvious, you can deal with it, when its gradual, it can be easy to ignore until it suddenly accelerates, when coping strategies may fall short.

In the absorbing and extraordinary book Blue Machine, how the ocean shapes our world, author and presenter Helen Czerski uses the phrase to describe the constant reshaping of the sea.  “The gradual changes are the slow shunting of the whole plates around the globe, at speeds of a few centimetres per year.”  Then all at once changes are “thousands of tiny earthquakes.. the solid sea floor dropped by 2.4 metres, clearly an eruption…. Long jagged mountainous scars zigzag around the global ocean… each one rumbles along with its own dramas and growth spurts, for the most part hidden by the ocean.”  It’s not directly related but as we face increasing Ocean temperatures, we must pay attention to gradual changes before they become seismic.

This observation is key to delivering transformation and change in an unstable world.  Dramatic changes are a surprise, a shock even, simply because on the surface, on the blanket of the deep ocean, everything has looked under control.

Any organisation with a complex matrix management system can be prone to this, because the tendency to manage upwards and across, can lead to people smoothing over any minor changes until it is too late to change course in time. 

Any team that lacks a challenger embedded in it is vulnerable to group think and consensus, which again can mean missing the warning signals of change.

Gradually and then suddenly is a danger to us all.  It can happen in relationships where suddenly the small things that aren’t right become impossible to live with.  And it is happening with trust.

Dan Slivjanovski, CMO at DV, gave the keynote at the Campaign seminar DV Impact: Protection, Performance, Outcomes on May 8. 

He warned about the proliferation of fake news online.  He told us about an egregious example of this that matters hugely to Londoners: the instance of Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, who said that deepfake audio of him making inflammatory remarks before Armistice Day 2023 nearly caused riots in the capital.  The clip used AI – artificial intelligence – to create a replica of Mr Khan’s voice saying words scripted by the faker, disparaging Remembrance weekend with an expletive and calling for pro-Palestinian marches, planned for the same day last November, to take precedence.

Intended to sound like a secret recording, it said: “What’s important and paramount is the one-million-man Palestinian march takes place on Saturday.”

The clip imitated Mr Khan, the first Muslim mayor of London, saying: “​​I control the Met Police, they will do as the Mayor of London tells them…the British public need to get a grip”. It said the prime minister meeting with Met Police Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley was “a waste of time” because “the buck stops with me”.

According to BBC news coverage: “Mr Khan said the fake audio “wasn’t a bit of fun” or “satire” and its creator had not been “naive” about the consequences it could have.

Mr Khan said organisations such as the Electoral Commission, which are responsible for keeping the UK’s elections “free and fair”, also needed more powers to deal with faked information.​​

There is currently no criminal law in the UK which specifically covers this kind of scenario.

The mayor said it was also “really worrying” that social media companies did not contact him or the authorities about the faked audio at the time it went viral.”

Renee DiResta of the Stanford Internet Observatory explains: “social media took the cost of distribution to zero, and generative AI takes the cost of generation to zero”.

Deepfakes are increasing exponentially.  According to Sumsub research there’s been a significant 10x increase in the number of deepfakes detected globally across all industries from 2022 to 2023: 1740% surge in USA, 1530% in APAC, 780% in Europe.

The 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer named a new paradox at the heart of society. Rapid innovation offers the promise of a new era of prosperity, but instead risks exacerbating trust issues, leading to further societal instability and political polarization.

According to Slivjanovski 99% of all content could be AI originated by the dawn of the next decade.  Unless AI tools for detecting and deterring deep fakes grow at a faster rate than the deep fake proliferation, then the impact on trust might be sudden and irreversible.  We all need to pay attention to this or gradually mounting distrust will develop into sudden and irreversible disruption.

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