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A magazine touted Michael Schumacher's first interview in years. It was actually AI

Michael Schumacher, pictured at a press conference in Brazil in 2006, hasn't spoken publicly since suffering a near-fatal head injury in 2013.
Paul Gilham
Getty Images
Michael Schumacher, pictured at a press conference in Brazil in 2006, hasn't spoken publicly since suffering a near-fatal head injury in 2013.

A German tabloid magazine raised hopes — and eyebrows — earlier this month when it published what it called the "first interview" with Michael Schumacher, the race car legend who hasn't spoken publicly since suffering a near-fatal brain injury in December 2013.

The April 15 Die Aktuelle article featured quotes purportedly from the German athlete, discussing his medical condition and life after his skiing accident — the kind of information that his family has fought to keep private for nearly a decade. The big reveal came at the very end:

"Did Michael Schumacher really say everything himself?" the article concludes, according to The Independent. "The interview was online. On a page that has to do with artificial intelligence, or AI for short."

The AI-generated interview sparked backlash immediately, and Schumacher's family said through its spokesperson that it plans to sue the magazine. (Their representative declined to comment further in an email to NPR.)

Within a week of the interview publishing, Die Aktuelle fired editor-in-chief Anne Hoffmann and issued an apology to Schumacher's family.

"This tasteless and misleading article should never have appeared," said Bianca Pohlmann, managing director of parent company FUNKE magazines. "It in no way corresponds to the standards of journalism that we – and our readers – expect from a publisher like FUNKE."

Nicole Kraft, an associate professor of communications at The Ohio State University, agrees.

"The idea that we would allow an AI program to manufacture what they think Michael Schumacher would be saying at this point in his life is really just patently unethical," she says.

While Kraft was horrified to see the faked interview, she was not surprised.

"This is our new reality," she says. "And we're going to need to be much more discerning in how we interpret information, and how we process that that's in front of us and not necessarily take it at face value. That's going to be a responsibility for every person who's a consumer of any information."

The magazine called the piece "deceptively real"

At first glance, the cover — with a large photo of a smiling Schumacher — looks as though it is promoting an exclusive interview.

"No meager, nebulous half-sentences from friends," reads a translation of the cover text by The Verge. "But answers from him! By Michael Schumacher, 54!"

Only one clue suggests that might not be the case: a line calling the interview "deceptively real."

The spread itself features quotes attributed to Schumacher, about his injury, recovery and family.

"I was so badly injured that I lay for months in a kind of artificial coma, because otherwise my body couldn't have dealt with it all," reads one, per The Independent. "I've had a tough time but the hospital team has managed to bring me back to my family."

In reality, very little is known about Schumacher's condition. His family has fiercely safeguarded his privacy.

Schumacher's life after his legendary career is a mystery

Schumacher won 91 Grand Prix races and seven world championship titles during his two-decade career, before retiring in 2012.

The following December, while skiing in the French Alps, he fell and hit his head on a rock, shattering his helmet. Schumacher was put into a medically induced coma and underwent two operations to remove blood clots around his brain.

Doctors were initially unsure whether Schumacher would survive. But by June 2014, his manager said he had awoken from his coma and was being released from the French hospital to one in Switzerland to continue his rehabilitation. Details have been scarce ever since.

His wife, Corinna Schumacher, said in a 2021 Netflix documentary that the family lives together at home and does therapy. She described Michael as "different, but he's here."

"We do everything we can to make Michael better and to make sure he's comfortable, and to simply make him feel our family, our bond," she said. "We're trying to carry on as a family, the way Michael liked it and still does. And we are getting on with our lives."

This isn't the Schumachers' first case against the magazine

The Schumachers have had issues with Die Aktuelle in the past, as ESPN reports.

A controversial 2014 cover of the magazine featured a picture of the couple alongside the headline "Awake." The actual story was about other people who had woken up from comas.

The following year, the family sued the magazine over a cover that said "a new love" had entered Corinna's life: It was actually about the couple's daughter. Their lawsuit was dismissed.

Kraft believes the Schumachers have a strong civil case this time around, with either a privacy or defamation claim.

But she says while fabrication is not unheard of in journalism, "we're in uncharted waters" when it comes to legal consequences for AI-generated fabrications.

"I'm not sure what their level of success will be because we are in a brand new space of law," she adds. "And the legal system itself hasn't really caught up with the technological advances of the internet, of social media, of this rapid revolution and evolution of media."

Kraft notes that European countries generally do not have the same level of free speech protections as the U.S., where a case of this sort would probably be more likely to settle before getting to court (as was the case with Dominion Voting Systems' suit against Fox News).

"I think this is going to be an epidemic across media," she says. "And they just happened to have fired the first round on this one."

There are lessons for readers, even in the U.S.

Kraft says the prevalence of AI and chatbots is opening up a number of benefits, challenges and ethical questions, whether about national media outlets or students using ChatGPT in her class.

"Whenever there's new technology, the desire is there to push it to its ultimate boundaries," she adds. "And I think that's what we're seeing right now."

Kraft does not expect to see these technologies regulated in the near future. If that does happen, she thinks it would be "a fairly knee-jerk reaction that may or may not hold up in a court of law," given the U.S. legal system's reluctance to curb speech.

She points out that little has been done despite years of deep fakes (including Republicans' AI-generated response to Biden's reelection announcement earlier this week). At the end of the day, she says, lying is protected speech.

"So I think that this is going to be a really questionable space that we are going to struggle with for quite some time — especially as we move into the election season, and are susceptible to things that are manufactured, and where we won't have any idea where they came from or how they were generated," she adds.

Kraft recommends people double and triple check the information they see online, make sure it's coming from reputable sources and decide how much validity to give to things that they can't confirm.

There are very few things people are going to be able to take at face value, she adds.

"If something seems too good to be true or too surprising to be true, it probably is," she says. "And I put into that category the idea that Michael Schumacher would miraculously decide to do an interview."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.

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