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About That Pelosi Video: What to Do About ‘Cheapfakes’ in 2020

Publication Type: 
Other Writing
Publication Date: 
May 29, 2019

In the summer of 2016, a meme began to circulate on the fringes of the right-wing internet: the notion that presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was seriously ill. Clinton suffered from Parkinson’s disease, a brain tumor and seizures, among other things, argued Infowars contributor Paul Joseph Watson in a YouTube video. The meme (and allegations) were entirely unfounded. As reporter Ben Collins describes, however, Watson’s baseless accusation nonetheless spread through the right-wing mediasphere and then reached mainstream audiences through Fox News. “Go online and put down ‘Hillary Clinton illness,’ take a look at the videos for yourself,” Donald Trump’s advisor Rudy Giuliani urged Fox viewers

Almost three years to the date, Giuliani is peddling a similar message about the Democratic Party leader’s health. On May 23, deceptively edited videos of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi began to circulate on Facebook, with footage of a speech given by Pelosi altered to make her appear drunk or unwell. “What is wrong with Nancy Pelosi?” Giuliani tweeted, linking to one of the videos. “Her speech pattern is bizarre.” (In an obvious retreat, Giuliani later deleted the tweet.) Later that evening, the president himself tweeted out a link to a different deceptive video, first aired on Lou Dobbs Tonight on Fox News, that used choppy editing to make Pelosi appear to stammer. Though the Washington Post had published an article warning about the deceptively edited Pelosi videos hours before Giuliani’s and Trump’s tweets, that proved no impediment to the videos’ going viral.

These sorry episodes remind us that we need not wait for technological change to make disinformation cascades possible. True, the arrival of deepfakes (that is, highly realistic synthetic video or audio making it seem that real people said or did something they never said or did) poses a serious threat along these lines, as two of us (Chesney and Citron) have argued (initially on Lawfare and in Foreign Affairs and in much more detail in this forthcoming California Law Review article). But it would be a mistake to think that serious harm to our democracy can come only from a deepfake.

To be sure, less convincing forms of fraud (now sometimes called cheapfakes or shallowfakes) are comparatively easy to detect. But as we have seen, they can still cause tremendous mischief. This should come as no surprise, for many of the same considerations that drove us to warn about the dangers of deepfakes apply with cheapfakes. 

Read the full piece at Lawfare