“We are truly fucked.” That was Motherboard’s spot-on reaction to deep fake sex videos (realistic-looking videos that swap a person’s face into sex scenes actually involving other people). And that sleazy application is just the tip of the iceberg. As Julian Sanchez tweeted, “The prospect of any Internet rando being able to swap anyone’s face into porn is incredibly creepy. But my first thought is that we have not even scratched the surface of how bad ‘fake news’ is going to get.” Indeed.
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 individuals, businesses, and democracy. 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.
I. Deep Fakes and Harm to Individuals
Fueled by artificial intelligence, digital impersonation is on the rise. Machine-learning algorithms (often neural networks) combined with facial-mapping software enable the cheap and easy fabrication of content that hijacks one’s identity—voice, face, body. Deep fake technology inserts individuals’ faces into videos without their permission. The result is “believable videos of people doing and saying things they never did.”
Not surprisingly, this concept has been quickly leveraged to sleazy ends. The latest craze is fake sex videos featuring celebrities like Gal Gadot and Emma Watson. 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, cyber stalkers are sure to use fake sex videos to torment victims.
What comes next? We can expect to see deep fakes used in other abusive, individually-targeted ways, such as undermining a rival’s relationship with fake evidence of an affair or an enemy’s career with fake evidence of a racist comment.