Attack of the Cheapfakes

Melissa Ryan
Sep 6, 2020 · 3 min read

Last week, in one 24 hour stretch, Twitter flagged three videos from Trump campaign and GOP officials for sharing manipulated media on their Twitter accounts: Rep. Steve Scalise, White House Aide Dan Scavino, and a Trump campaign Twitter account.

You’ve probably heard the most about the video Rep. Scalise shared because it alters the words of activist Ady Barkan. Barkin who must use a computerized voice to speak due to complications from ALS wrote an op-ed about the experience of having Republicans manipulating his computerized voice to “put words in my mouth.”

Barkan:

Scalise eventually scrubbed the video from his Twitter feed after being criticized for the manipulation, but the ominous lessons of the episode remain: the ability to use technology not only for good but to mislead and manipulate; the willingness of those with political agendas to resort to such disinformation and propaganda; and the way in which America has cleaved into two separate information universes, with a conservative media ecosystem amplifying falsehoods that then take root.

The entirety of the Scalise video painted a bleak picture of the country, with cleverly spliced scenes designed to make major cities look like places of anarchy and violent chaos. That’s already disingenuous; protesters demanding an end to centuries of racial violence have largely been peaceful. But what made it so remarkable wasn’t just that Scalise twisted the truth about Black Lives Matter. His video went a step further, altering a question I had asked Biden about law enforcement to make it sound as though Biden had agreed to defund the police. I’m in favor of defunding the police, so I wish that were the case. But Biden has been clear that isn’t his position.

Scalise eventually removed the video, after it had been left up for hours, but has refused to apologize to Barkan. Scalise justified his actions by saying, “Look, it shouldn’t have been edited, but at the same time the comments were always about [defunding the police].”

The other two videos were similar in nature. The Scavino video was an old interview with Harry Belafonte spliced with footage of Biden from the DNC to appear as if Biden had fallen asleep during the interview. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign video took Biden’s words out of context, cutting out words, and making it seem like Biden said “You won’t be safe in Joe Biden’s America.”

For all the fear around deepfakes this election, it’s clear that our actual problem is cheapfakes. The term was coined by researchers Joan Donovan and Britt Paris, who warned about the phenomenon in last year. A cheapfake “rel[ies] on free software that allows manipulation through easy conventional editing techniques like speeding, slowing, and cutting, as well as nontechnical manipulations like restaging or recontextualizing existing footage that are already causing problems.”

As we’ve seen time and time again Trump supporters don’t actually care if the content they consume and share is true or not, and in some cases have shared video content claiming it shows something it actually doesn’t. So I’m not surprised that cheapfakes are a bigger problem than deepfakes. Why bother investing in a high tech manipulation when a quick and dirty one will do?

Trump and the GOP clearly have no qualms about creating false content so expect social media to be flooded with cheapfakes from now until election day. The platforms will label some of them and ignore others. Republican operatives will continue to use the tactic and then claim the tech companies are censoring them when content is labeled or removed.

One thing to keep in mind: if Trump and the Republicans were winning they wouldn’t bother with manipulating video. I view the increase in cheapfakes as a sign of desperation. Winning campaigns don’t need to rely on disinformation or a completely alternative reality. The flood of cheapfakes from the Right is a clear sign of weakness.

The above article is an excerpt from Ctrl Alt-Right Delete, a newsletter devoted to covering the rise of far-right extremism, white nationalism, disinformation, and online toxicity, delivered on a weekly basis to more than 16,000 subscribers.

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Melissa Ryan

Written by

Politics + technology. Author of Ctrl Alt Right Delete newsletter. Subscribe here: https://goo.gl/c74Vva. Coffee drinker. Kentucky basketball fan.

CtrlAltRightDelete

Ctrl Alt-Right Delete is a newsletter devoted to covering the rise of far-right extremism, white nationalism disinformation, and online toxicity. It is written and edited by Melissa Ryan and is a product of CARD Strategies.

Melissa Ryan

Written by

Politics + technology. Author of Ctrl Alt Right Delete newsletter. Subscribe here: https://goo.gl/c74Vva. Coffee drinker. Kentucky basketball fan.

CtrlAltRightDelete

Ctrl Alt-Right Delete is a newsletter devoted to covering the rise of far-right extremism, white nationalism disinformation, and online toxicity. It is written and edited by Melissa Ryan and is a product of CARD Strategies.

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