‘Deep Fakes’ a Looming Crisis

An emerging technology will take "fake news" to a whole new level.

Bobby Chesney and Danielle Citron point to emerging technology that will take “fake news” to a whole new level.

Recent events amply demonstrate that false claims—even preposterous ones—can be peddled with unprecedented success today thanks to a combination of social media ubiquity and virality, cognitive biases, filter bubbles, and group polarization. The resulting harms are significant for , and . Belated recognition of the problem has spurred a variety of efforts to address this most recent illustration of truth decay, and at first blush there seems to be reason for optimism. Alas, the problem may soon take a significant turn for the worse thanks to deep fakes.

Get used to hearing that phrase. It refers to digital manipulation of sound, images, or video to impersonate someone or make it appear that a person did something—and to do so in a manner that is increasingly realistic, to the point that the unaided observer cannot detect the fake. Think of it as a destructive variation of the Turing test: imitation designed to mislead and deceive rather than to emulate and iterate.

As with so many technological innovations, it first broke out in a real way in pornography. An individual calling himself “deepfakes” created an entire subreddit (banned earlier this month) dedicated to pornographic movies with the faces of celebrities skillfully overlaid onto the actresses. As Chesney and Citron point out, this is awful enough:

Although the sex scenes look realistic, they are not consensual cyber porn. Conscripting individuals (more often women) into fake porn undermines their agency, reduces them to sexual objects, engenders feeling of embarrassment and shame, and inflicts reputational harm that can devastate careers (especially for everyday people). Regrettably,  are sure to use fake sex videos to torment victims.

But even more nefarious uses are easy to foresee:

Blackmailers might use fake videos to extract money or confidential information from individuals who have reason to believe that disproving the videos would be hard (an abuse that will include sextortion but won’t be limited to it). Reputations could be decimated, even if the videos are ultimately exposed as fakes; salacious harms will spread rapidly, technical rebuttals and corrections not so much.

And, of course, in an era where state agents are using cyber tools to influence elections and other political dynamics in adversary nations, the national security implications are mind-boggling.

Deep fakes raise the stakes for the “fake news” phenomenon in dramatic fashion (quite literally). We have already  trolls try to create panic over fake environmental disasters, and the recent Saudi-Qatar crisis  by a hack in which someone injected fake stories (with fake quotes by Qatar’s emir) into a Qatari news site. Now, let’s throw in realistic-looking videos and audio clips to bolster the lies. Consider these terrifying possibilities:

  • Fake videos could feature public officials taking bribes, uttering racial epithets, or engaging in adultery.
  • Politicians and other government officials could appear in locations where they were not, saying or doing horrific things that they did not.
  • Fake videos could place them in meetings with spies or criminals, launching public outrage, criminal investigations, or both.
  • Soldiers could be shown murdering innocent civilians in a war zone, precipitating waves of violence and even strategic harms to a war effort.
  • A deep fake might falsely depict a white police officer shooting an unarmed black man while shouting racial epithets.
  • A fake audio clip might “reveal” criminal behavior by a candidate on the eve of an election.
  • A fake video might portray an Israeli official doing or saying something so inflammatory as to cause riots in neighboring countries, potentially disrupting diplomatic ties or even motivating a wave of violence.
  • False audio might convincingly depict U.S. officials privately “admitting” a plan to commit this or that outrage overseas, exquisitely timed to disrupt an important diplomatic initiative.
  • A fake video might depict emergency officials “announcing” an impending missile strike on Los Angeles or an emergent pandemic in New York, provoking panic and worse.

Note that these examples all emphasize how a well-executed and well-timed deep fake might generate significant harm in a particular instance, whether the damage is to physical property and life in the wake of social unrest or panic or to the integrity of an election. The threat posed by deep fakes, however, also has a long-term, systemic dimension.

The spread of deep fakes will threaten to erode the trust necessary for democracy to function effectively, for two reasons. First, and most obviously, the marketplace of ideas will be  with a particularly-dangerous form of falsehood. Second, and more subtly, the public may become more willing to disbelieve true but uncomfortable facts. Cognitive biases already encourage resistance to such facts, but awareness of ubiquitous deep fakes may enhance that tendency, providing a ready excuse to disregard unwelcome evidence. At a minimum, as fake videos become widespread, the public may have difficulty believing what their eyes (or ears) are telling them—even when the information is quite real.

This is going to be next to impossible to combat. And it doesn’t help, to say the least, that the President himself is constantly trying to undermine the credibility of legitimate media—and even his own law enforcement and intelligence agencies—for his own ends.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, National Security, Science & Technology
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MBunge says:

    It’s curious that in all this discussion/frenzy over “fake news” that certain things never seem to get mentioned. You know, like those supposedly scientific analyses that said Hillary Clinton was 99.999999999% guaranteed to win the White House. Or all the climate change projections that wound up wrong. Or all the media coverage that had people believing the GOP tax cut was actually a tax increase. Seriously. Look it up. Polls showed people thought it was a tax increase. Not that it was a bad idea or wouldn’t work or would blow a hole in the deficit. People actually thought a tax cut was a tax hike. Who told them that?

    Or how about “Collusion!” There has never been any evidence to support this fantasy and it falls apart if you think about it for five minutes. Yet this “fake news” has absolutely dominated America’s political culture for well over a year. And unless I missed it, James Joyner spent that time expressing little to no concern over that “fake news” or any of the other proven false media stories and allegations leveled against Donald Trump.

    “Fake news” is not about fake news. It’s about the collapse in elite authority and credibility. And to be fair, some of that collapse has come from determined efforts by non-elite actors and been magnified by technological/media innovations. But the primary reason for the collapse in elite authority has been the behavior of those elites.

    Long before Trump, Bill Clinton was a flagrant violator of established norms in politics and basically two generations of Democratic elites didn’t care. And a generation of Republican elites told us George W. Bush was up to the job of being President and marched in lockstep with him off the political, economic, and foreign policy cliff. And let’s not forget the person elevated to front runner for the 2016 Democratic Presidential nomination AT THE SAME TIME SHE WAS BEING INVESTIGATED BY THE FBI FOR POSSIBLE CRIMINAL PROSECUTION. You know, one of those law enforcement agencies in whom we should have such immense faith?

    The danger of “fake news” is not, as James Joyner and others fear, the gullibility of the average Joe. The danger is that supposedly legitimate sources of information and political/cultural guidance have spent decades discrediting themselves.

    Or to put it another way, why does Bill Kristol EVER show up on my TV anymore? We can’t censor him if he wants to get on his Twitter soapbox and rant, but why would anyone EVER invite him to be part of our public discourse? It sure isn’t happening because the unwashed masses are demanding to hear from him.

    Mike




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  2. Franklin says:

    @MBunge:

    You know, like those supposedly scientific analyses that said Hillary Clinton was 99.999999999% guaranteed to win the White House.

    I stopped reading your post right there. Nate Silver had her at about 60%. In case you have trouble with math, that’s a bit different than 99.99999999%.




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  3. James Pearce says:

    I think the harm of this may be a little overstated. In the short term, these “deep fakes” are convincing enough for, to be crude about it, masturbatory fantasies, but they’re still not what we’d call “Hollywood quality,” which even at their most sophisticated evoke a “how did they do that?” response, rather than “But I thought Peter Cushing died….”

    If, at some point in the future, these fakes become actually convincing (and not just really good illusions) then what will probably happen is that video, due to its manipulability, will have what Tyler Cowen might call a reduction in status.




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  4. Mikey says:
  5. Stormy Dragon says:

    Solution: cameras cryptographically sign the images they produce with an embedded private key. The corresponding public key could then be used to verify the image is the unaltered output.




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  6. Mikey says:

    I agree with Pearce, we’re not at a place yet where such videos are truly convincing. If they ever become so, it will doubtless lead to new methods of digitally “signing” and authenticating videos just as we already do for many other computer files and programs we need to ensure haven’t been manipulated.




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  7. michael reynolds says:

    @Stormy Dragon:
    Get busy writing the app!




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  8. Mister Bluster says:

    Bungles. Certified Deep Flake.




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  9. James Joyner says:

    @MBunge:

    You know, like those supposedly scientific analyses that said Hillary Clinton was 99.999999999% guaranteed to win the White House.

    As other commenters have noted, this never happened. Given their lock on California from 1992 on, Democrats are always in the favored position and, indeed, they’ve won the popular vote in all but one election during that span. Hillary in fact led the polls pretty much uninterrupted and received nearly 3 million more votes than Trump. But Trump narrowly won several Rust Belt states that hadn’t gone Republican in some time. None of that, though, falls into the “fake news” category.

    Or all the climate change projections that wound up wrong.

    First, scientific projections aren’t “news.” Second, they’ve been quite right on the trends. Almost all of the warmest years in recorded history have been in the last few years. I don’t know what you’re talking about here.

    Or all the media coverage that had people believing the GOP tax cut was actually a tax increase.

    The coverage was pretty clear: It was a huge tax cut for the rich, a tax hike for those living in high-tax localities, and an eventual tax hike for the majority. This CNBC report was typical:

    [T]he Tax Policy Center said that while all income groups would see tax reductions, on average, under the Senate bill in 2019, 9 percent of taxpayers would pay higher taxes that year than under current law. By 2027, that proportion would grow to 50 percent, largely because the legislation’s personal tax cuts expire in 2026, which Republicans did to curb budget deficits the bill would create.

    The policy center, a joint operation of the liberal-leaning Urban Institute and Brookings Institution, found that low-earners would generally get smaller tax breaks than higher-income people.

    In 2019, those making less than $25,000 would get an average $50 tax reduction, or 0.3 percent of their after-tax income. Middle-income earners would get average cuts of $850, while people making at least $746,000 would get average cuts of $34,000, or 2.2 percent of income.

    The center also said the Senate proposal would generate enough economic growth to produce additional revenue of $169 billion over a decade. That’s far short of closing the near $1.5 trillion in red ink that Congress’ nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation has estimated the bill would produce over that period.

    PolitiFact published at least one piece debunking a Democratic claim that the bill was a middle class tax hike.

    More MBunge:

    Or how about “Collusion!” There has never been any evidence to support this fantasy and it falls apart if you think about it for five minutes.

    There was enough evidence to force a Republican administration and a Republican Congress to launch investigations. Which are still ongoing and have produced numerous indictments and guilty pleasue.

    And unless I missed it, James Joyner spent that time expressing little to no concern over that “fake news” or any of the other proven false media stories and allegations leveled against Donald Trump.

    You’ve missed it. I’ve written several pieces, including one quite early for The National Interest, urging my fellow anti-Trumpers to be incredibly cautious against hyperbole lest we lower the bar on what is acceptible presidential conduct to “Well, he’s not Mussolini.”




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  10. Stormy Dragon says:

    @michael reynolds:

    It wouldn’t work as an app, it would have to be built into the camera hardware, using the same tech as the “smart chips” in credit cards now. Just it would be signing images instead of financial transaction records.




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  11. de stijl says:

    @James Joyner:

    So all of MBunge’s claimed example of actual “fake news” turned out to be fake?

    I’m shocked!




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  12. de stijl says:

    @James Pearce:

    which even at their most sophisticated evoke a “how did they do that?” response, rather than “But I thought Peter Cushing died….”

    We may have differing tastes when it comes to erotica.

    Myself, I have zero desire to watch a digitally inserted Peter Cushing in any “deep fake” video.




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  13. mattb says:

    @James Joyner:

    First, scientific projections aren’t “news.” Second, they’ve been quite right on the trends. Almost all of the warmest years in recorded history have been in the last few years. I don’t know what you’re talking about here.

    I’d go even further to say that Journalists, on a whole, have reported far more “fake climate” news by giving denialists (like those at the Heartland Insitute) a platform in the name of “objective” reporting (i.e. we need to give both sides equal time even if one side is citing incorrect information).

    Beyond that, @MBunge once again proves that if you want to try to be the smartest person in the room, it isn’t a good strategy to start your polemic with easily disproven strawmen.




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  14. Andy says:

    I dunno, I’m not convinced. The best digital artists in the world couldn’t make a young Princess Leia or Peter Cushing look convincing enough to fool anyone in Rogue One – so I’m skeptical that this will be an actual problem.

    Go back and look at any sci-fi movie from your childhood or when you were a young man – the special effects you thought were so realistic back then look downright silly today. In other words, our sense of what is “realistic” changes and gets more sophisticated over time. The ones that have stood the test of time are done with actual cameras – like 2001, A Space Odyssey.

    Someday we might actually get to the point where the digital fake and reality is actually indistinguishable, but that doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.

    Plus, we’ve seen this tried recently with the shoot-down of MH-17. Pretty much everything the Russian MoD and Russians released about this was fake and the fakes were quickly identified by amateur “experts.” Same with much of what’s gone on in Syria. To be sure, there are useful idiots who believe this stuff, but they will be there no matter what it said or shown.

    So I’m not too worried about this problem, at least not yet.

    And it doesn’t help, to say the least, that the President himself is constantly trying to undermine the credibility of legitimate media—and even his own law enforcement and intelligence agencies—for his own ends.

    Well, the “legitimate” media (not sure who you think is “legitimate” and who isn’t) are their own worst enemies. The decline in credibility, viewership, readership, etc. of what used to be the mainstream media predates Trump’s rise as a political figure. The transformation of the “legitimate” media into partisan infotainment operations (especially in television) isn’t caused by Trump, rather, the credibility decline and the election of Trump are both effects of other factors and splits within our society generally.

    Additionally, the “legitimate” media, after almost two years, still can’t understand how Trump plays them to his own ends, much less understand why average Americans increasingly consider them to be biased advocates.

    Not to mention demographic changes – it’s unclear how cable news, for example, will survive the passing of the Boomers.

    BTW, I’m glad to see you writing here much more and thankfully it’s not about the outrage or tweet du-jour. I hope you keep it up.




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  15. Gustopher says:

    Imagine what MBunge will believe if he has good video evidence. And more scary, imagine what MBunge adjacent people will believe — the people who are on the fringes but still anchored in reality.




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  16. Gustopher says:

    @Andy:

    I dunno, I’m not convinced. The best digital artists in the world couldn’t make a young Princess Leia or Peter Cushing look convincing enough to fool anyone in Rogue One – so I’m skeptical that this will be an actual problem.

    People have a tendency to believe what they want to believe.

    And, if you add some motion blur, and lower the video quality you could convince people that you had amateur footage of Peter Cushing from back in the day.




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  17. James Pearce says:

    @de stijl:

    Myself, I have zero desire to watch a digitally inserted Peter Cushing in any “deep fake” video.

    But the digital insertion is the best part.

    (Ba-dump-bump…peeesh.)




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  18. Mister Bluster says:

    And now for some Real News!

    ‘Painfully stupid’: Former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele responds to racial insult hurled at him during conservative conference

    “We elected Mike Steele as chairman because he was a black guy, that was the wrong thing to do,” Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) communication director Ian Walters told hundreds of conservatives during the conference’s Ronald Reagan dinner as guests at tables gasped in shock.

    “I can’t believe an official of CPAC would go onstage in front of an audience and say something like that.” said Steele.
    When asked if he thought Walter’s remarks were indicative of the current state of the Republican Party, Steele added that he “was not going to project that out.”

    Allow me to help citizen Steele with his dilemma.
    Your Dear Leader Donald Trump says Africa is full of sh!thole countries. He wants white people from Norway to live in the USA.
    Yes. REPUBLICAN Ian Walter’s remarks ARE indicative of the current state of YOUR Republican Party.




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  19. gVOR08 says:

    @Gustopher:

    I dunno, I’m not convinced. The best digital artists in the world couldn’t make a young Princess Leia or Peter Cushing look convincing enough to fool anyone in Rogue One – so I’m skeptical that this will be an actual problem.

    People have a tendency to believe what they want to believe.

    An animated cartoon of a baby being born in Kenya with a hand drawn face of mature Obama would be enough for Bungles and the Trump base. I hope a rumor of such a cartoon started by my comment isn’t enough.




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  20. gVOR08 says:

    @Jake: In general I’m trying to practice DFTFT, but that was the weirdest bit of projection I’ve seen in a long time. And faux intellectual to boot. A classic of the genre.




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  21. al-Ameda says:

    @Jake:

    At its heart, liberalism is a gnostic religion, and the essence of that religion is the believer’s faith that he possesses the means of changing the world for the better.

    Yes, that’s exactly what the elitist and condescending Dr. Jeffrey J. Folks believes.
    Also, you really should put quotes on those thoughts that you have lifted whole from American Thinker




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  22. Jake says:

    @al-Ameda:

    Cognitive dissonance




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  23. Jake says:
  24. al-Ameda says:

    @Jake:

    Cognitive dissonance

    Should I ask you, or Dr. Folks, if you actually know what cognitive dissonance is?




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  25. Jake says:

    @al-Ameda:

    Echo chamber. Your’re pretty brave.




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  26. James Pearce says:

    @Jake: You post nothing but outside links and quotes and you dare call OTB an echo chamber???




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  27. Gustopher says:

    @Jake: Copying and pasting psuedointellectualism is adorable! Soon you’ll be able to potty all by yourself, like a big boy!

    Seriously though, if you have your own thoughts — your own actual thoughts — rather than just copy/paste nonsense, people might not take you for a complete joke.

    At least learn to paraphrase so we know whether you even understand what you’re parroting.




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  28. mattb says:

    @Jake:

    Echo chamber.

    Given that I have never seen you post anything that doesn’t tie back to a populist conservative website, often without adding any thoughts of your own to that link, I really don’t think you understand what “echo chamber” means.

    Simply posting links to gateway pundit or the american thinker with “so smart” or “so true” really isn’t an argument.




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  29. Tyrell says:

    Think about artificial intelligence and virtual reality. Those will present major legal and ethical issues in the near future.




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  30. James Pearce says:

    @Jake: None of us will get an education listening to that.

    Whatever it is.




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  31. Tyrell says:

    @Jake: I listened to it and it is very informative and makes a lot of sense.




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  32. Mikey says:

    @James Pearce: I clicked it. It’s by Tom Woods, a founding member of the League of the South, a neo-Confederate white nationalist organization designated a hate group by the SPLC.

    So basically just another example of Jake linking to racists. No surprise.




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  33. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @James Pearce: I made the mistake of starting to listen to it just in case. Alas, you were right. It’s the audio-book format (in the form of an interview) of the article he posted a couple of days ago where the gun store guy in Utah was making the argument for arming teachers as *THE SOLUTION[tm pending]* for all manner of gun violence.




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  34. mattb says:

    @Jake:
    For someone so concerned about echo chambers, it’s remarkable how about 90% of your “contributions” here are simply “echoing” someone else (just posting other people’s words without any substantial thought of your own).




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