The official blog of The Social Democratic Party.

Watch out for Deepfakes – the newest threat to democracy

Recent deepfakes have shown Obama using an expletive to describe Trump and Mark Zuckerberg ‘admitting’ Facebook's goal is to exploit its users.

By: Stephen Scott Watson

Monday 21st July 1969 was a hot day in Washington D.C. The temperature peaked at 35ºC that afternoon and thunderstorms were on the way. In the cool of the Oval Office, President Nixon was reading a pre-prepared script into a live broadcast TV camera for the Six O’Clock News. It was a message that no-one wanted to hear:

“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery.”

Except that he didn’t make the speech, the Apollo 11 mission was a success, the astronauts returned safely and the ‘Contingency Speech’ as it was known was never used. But if you want to see Nixon making the speech that never was, have a look at a recent experiment by researchers from the Center for Advanced Virtuality at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

This is a good example of a new phenomenon set to hit your social media accounts soon – Deepfakes. This one was an experiment by legitimate researchers at a prestigious university, but many are less benign.

So, what are ‘Deepfakes’? And why should people who care about democracy be worried?

In simple terms, Deepfake technology enables anyone with a computer and Internet connection to create realistic-looking photos and videos of people saying and doing things that they did not actually say or do. Based on the pre-existing phrase ‘deep learning’, deepfakes first emerged on the internet in late 2017, powered by an innovative new deep learning method known as Generative Adversarial Networks (GANs). A GAN trained on photographs can generate new photographs that look authentic to human observers.

Have a look at the faces below – all reasonable enough? None of them is real.

They are all Deepfakes.

Deepfake faces

Unsurprisingly, as with many tech initiatives, Deepfakes were initially seized upon by the always inventive and resourceful online porn industry. But they have come a long way since transposing A-list actors heads onto pornstars bodies.

A recent example from the US that attracted media attention. During the ad break in ESPN’s popular documentary series ‘The Last Dance’, in April this year State Farm Insurance debuted a TV commercial that appeared to show footage from 1998 of ESPN analyst Kenny Mayne making startlingly accurate predictions about the year 2020. It would have caused a major ‘water cooler moment’ had the country not been in lockdown, but it was a Deepfake designed to get the viewer’s attention and it worked. The commercial startled, amused and fascinated ESPN’s viewers. What viewers should have felt, though, was worried.

The New York Times took the view that the ESPN commercial ‘Hints at Advertising’s Deepfake Future’ and that with the pandemic shutting down production, companies would increasingly ask ad agencies to make up digitally altered footage.

But it goes further than just untrustworthy TV advertising. Recently deepfakes have given us President Obama apparently using an expletive to describe President Trump and Mark Zuckerberg ‘admitting’ that Facebook’s true goal is to manipulate and exploit its users.

But, many argue, Deepfakes are really only an internet novelty. Not so, unfortunately. They are rapidly becoming a weapon of choice for destructive social and political forces. The rise in Deepfakes presence on the internet is rapid. At the start of 2019 it was estimated that 7,964 deepfakes were online (of which most were pornography) but, by December that year, the number had almost doubled.

So, starting from the darkest corners of the internet, Deepfake technology is starting to make its presence felt in the mainstream. The harm that could be done to political debate and democratic processes if entire populations can be shown fake videos that they believe are real is obvious.

As with most ‘fake news’, timing is key. Releasing a damaging Deepfake video 48 hours before an election might be perfect in terms of sowing seeds of doubt and preventing the truth to emerge completely. The Deepfake could be a major social and political weapon of our age, weaponizing information in a way that takes full advantage of the dynamics of the social media ecosystem that prizes ‘traffic’ above everything.

In a recent report, Washington’s Brookings Institution summed up the range of political and social dangers that deepfakes pose as: ‘distorting democratic discourse; manipulating elections; eroding trust in institutions; weakening journalism; exacerbating social divisions; undermining public safety; and inflicting hard-to-repair damage on the reputation of prominent individuals, including elected officials and candidates for office.’

And that’s not fake news!


Contributing technical editor: Chhavi Chauhan, PhD, Ethical Artificial Intelligence Policy Expert.

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All Comments (4)

  • imagine the fake Democrats reaction in November when Trump gets re-elected President I cannot see Biden winning

  • This is very worrying, as it undermines not only democracy but justice and every academic discipline. People already talk about a “post-truth” society, but if it becomes impossible for people to know what is and isn’t true because evidence can easily be fabricated everyone becomes a potential victim of irrefutable misinformation and defamation.

    Strong laws are needed, but how could cases be proven? How could such laws be compatible with free speech? Who would decide what is and isn’t true for enforcement purposes? It’s hard to see how knowledge could survive.

    Our whole society depends on being able to examine evidence and much of what is currently wrong can be traced to a failure to do so properly, but how can we rectify that if reliable evidence is simply not available?

  • why does anyone still listen to lame duck Obama who was one of the worst American presidents of all time He made Theresa May and Bojo look like political giants, I hold no candle for Trump either and I would worry about Biden as President

  • I am now at the point of only believing what I can see and hear with my own eyes and ears in the real world.

    Sadly, this “deepfake” phenomenon is the last straw in media for me. We can no longer believe newspapers, magazines, radio, tv or internet. Looking at the silver lining, as one always should – glass half-full and all that, we should only rely on media for fiction, reality is for living our lives in the real world. If we adopt this ideology then it can only be good for our planet as there will be minimal requirement and less reliance on technology for our political and daily news plus we can no longer rely on it for reliable statistics and reference.

    I am sorry if this is a little wordy but your comments box will not allow me to review my message, but thank you for giving me the facility to privately comment.

    I’ve enjoyed your website, and … if I can believe all that I’ve read about your policies then you may well have another supporter.

    I am not one to rush into decisions; I like to ponder and take my time before committing to a new political party and your views align very well with my own.

    You can thank whomever decided on the leaflet letterbox drop for bringing your party to my attention at the last election. Obviously, we wouldn’t be having the fiasco with the Covert-19 virus policies, brought about by the current knee-jerk government of Boris Johnson and cabinet, if maybe few like me voted SDP.

    P.S. you may wish to have a look at your GDPR message, visitors to your site need to be automatically opted out of cookies except the functional ones.

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