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The Rise of the Deepfake and the threat to Democracy

Deepfakes posted on the internet in the past two years, has alarmed many observers, who believe the technology could be used to disgrace politicians and even swing elections. Democracies appear to be gravely threatened by the speed at which disinformation can be created and spread via social media, where the incentive to share the most sensationalist content outweighs the incentive to perform the tiresome work of verification.

Last month, a digitally altered video showing Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives, appearing to slur drunkenly through a speech was widely shared on Facebook and YouTube. Trump then posted the clip on Twitter with the caption: “PELOSI STAMMERS THROUGH NEWS CONFERENCE”. The video was quickly debunked, but not before it had been viewed millions of times; the president did not delete his tweet, which at the time of writing has received nearly 98,000 likes. Facebook declined to take down the clip, qualifying its decision with the statement: “Once the video was fact-checked as false, we dramatically reduced its distribution.”

In response, a team including the artists Bill Posters and Daniel Howe two weeks ago posted a video on Instagram, in which Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg boasts that he has “total control of billions of people’s stolen data, all their secrets, their lives, their futures”.

In May 2018, a Flemish socialist party called sp.a posted a deepfake video to its Twitter and Facebook pages showing Trump appearing to taunt Belgium for remaining in the Paris climate agreement. The video, which remains on the party’s social media, is a poor forgery: Trump’s hair is curiously soft-focus, while his mouth moves with a Muppet-like elasticity. Indeed, the video concludes with Trump saying: “We all know that climate change is fake, just like this video,” although this sentence alone is not subtitled in Flemish Dutch. (The party declined to comment, but a spokesperson previously told the site Politico that it commissioned the video to “draw attention to the necessity to act on climate change”.)

But James [founder of the YouTube channel derpfakes’ that publishes deepfake videos] believes forgeries may have gone undetected. “The idea that deepfakes have already been used politically isn’t so farfetched,” he says. “It could be the case that deepfakes have already been widely used for propaganda.”