Find Face, Replace. Deepfakes and Politics.

Header. Deepfakes and Politics.

Mrs. Teasdale: Your Excellency! I thought you'd left.

Chicolini: Oh, no, I no leave.

Mrs. Teasdale: But I saw you with my own eyes!

Chicolini: Well, who you gonna believe? Me or your own eyes?

An excerpt from Duck Soup, 1933.

The rise of deepfakes sees the spread of realistic, however fabricated, videos. These advancements seem to have made it nearly impossible to distinguish a real video from a manipulation; seeing is no longer believing. We have come to a point where a well-timed forgery could tip an election, ruin a career, or start a military conflict. In the above excerpt, Chicolini poses a question, and each and every one of us will have to come up with an answer, sooner rather than later.

Photoshopped Politics: A Brief History.

Researchers are warning us of the consequences of the spread of deepfakes when it comes to politics, democracy, and journalism. How can I trust that this video is true when so many others are claimed to be fake? How can I vote for this individual when I have seen him do this and that in a possibly-real-maybe-fake video online? The impact is more than you'd initially realise. But the truth is, images, once believed to be the ultimate source of fact, have long contained fiction.

Stalin frequently order allies airbrushed out of photographs when they became enemies, notably cutting out Nikolai Yezhov, Head of the Secret Police, from a photo after he had him executed. Mussolini didn't want you to know he needed a horse-trainer so he looked more like Napoleon, and in 1939, the Canadian prime minister had King George VI cut out of a photo because he thought he would look more powerful talking to only the queen mother. Photographs create and solidify your reputation. But they can also ruin it. In 1950, Maryland Senator Millard Tydings probably lost re-election because of a forged photo that appeared to show Tydings talking to the leader of the American Communist Party.

Stalin and Nikolai Yezhov; Mussolini and horse-trainer; Canadian PM and Queen Mother; Millard Tydings appears with the leader of the American Communist Party.

We can clearly see how these "deepfakes" of the past have long been spreading disinformation and even changing history.

Now you see me, now you doubt.

In the past, since there was the people were less aware of the concept of Photoshop and digital manipulation, an image or recording was believed immediately. "The camera never lies" was a statement that ran true and photographs and audio recordings were often used as hard-proof that an event had taken place. The rise of deepfakes has not only increased the possibility of fake news being spread about key figures, but opens the door to these individuals claiming "that video evidence that would otherwise be very compelling is a fake” (Nick Dufour, Galston, 2020, para. 6).

“As a consequence of this, even truth will not be believed. The man in front of the tank at Tiananmen Square moved the world. Nixon on the phone cost him his presidency. Images of horror from concentration camps finally moved us into action. If the notion of … believing what you see is under attack, that is a huge problem.” Naris Memon.

This sets a dangerous precedent for democracy, with voters more likely to stick to what they know, believing only what is said within their partisan bubbles. An inability to tell truth from falsehood could lead to cynicism amongst voters, possibly leading to apathy and low voter turnout. A disillusionment with the entire political system is likely to take place in this bleak hypothetical (but plausible) future, and this could lead to further complications, with lasting effects.

Actually, this future is nearer than we think…

Trump has a message for all Belgians.

One of the first confirmed attempts of a political party using a deepfake video to influence an election involves Trump and climate change. In May 2018, a video of Trump making fun of Belgium for not backing out of the Paris climate agreement was posted by a Flemish socialist party. This video, very evidently a forgery, remains up on their Facebook page, and even concludes with Trump stating that the video is fake. But this part was not included in the Flemish Dutch subtitles. Although the party have not commented, it seems to have been a play to draw attention to climate change action (Parkin, 2019).

Possible deepfakes leads to…a coup?

Over in Gabon, a suspected deepfake caused havoc when it almost led to a coup. In late 2018, Ali Bongo Ondimba, the president of Gabon, became ill and stopped making public appearances. Following rumours about his health, the government announced he'd had a stroke. Then, a surprise video was released in December, but viewers weren't sure this was really the president. “It just looked odd: the eyes didn’t move properly, the head didn’t move in a natural way — the immediate kind of response was that this is a deepfake” says Henry Ajder, head of communications and research analysis at start-up Deeptrace (Venkataramakrishnan, 2019, para. 32). Some even suggested that Bongo had passed away. These rumours had very real consequences. Days after the address, military officials attempted a coup — however they were not successful, and experts have said that they had no evidence that the New Year's address was fake, but that didn't really matter. The mere existence of deepfakes, and well-timed suggestions from activists and a political opponent made people doubt what they saw.

Comedy skit sparks debate.

Over in Italy, a deepfake used for a comedy bit was misinterpreted. In September 2019, the Italian satirical news show Striscia la Notizia posted a fake video of Italy's former prime minister, Matteo Renzi. The actor, with Renzi's face edited on, insults fellow politicians such as Giuseppe Conte and Italy's president, Sergio Mattarella, with the added touch of obscene hand gestures. When this video was posted online, many viewers didn't realise it was a parody, while others criticised the show for not taking the effects of deepfakes seriously enough.

Mind your language.

One of the most recent uses of deepfakes in an election campaign the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) utilising the technology to reach different linguistic voter bases. In February 2020, a day before the Legislative Assembly elections in Delhi, videos of the BJP President Manoj Tiwari went viral on Whatsapp. This short video clip may seem like standard political canvassing, however there was more than one version of the video. The original was translated into both English and Haryanvi in order to reach more voters, since Tiwari could not speak all three languages

Real Fake News.

Cartoon by Ingrid Rice.

US Politicians and researchers are getting increasingly worried about deepfakes in the lead up to the 2020 elections. This is one of the main reasons behind the increase of focus on creating detection software. While there is a long way to go in that sector, states are doing whatever they can to regulate and control the release of deepfakes. In fact, California and Texas have enacted laws that make deepfakes illegal when they are intended to interfere with elections.

The effects of deepfakes in an election are seemingly threefold. A fake or manipulated video could make you think a candidate did or said something that you disagree with. In June of last year, a video of Nancy Pelosi appearing to slur and stumble through her speech sought to undermine her reputation, and even had Trump tweeting to mock her.

It could also, as stated previously, allow candidates plausible deniability to claim a video is fabricated in order to get away with it. Imagine the response if Trump could have claimed the Access Hollywood tape as a deepfake. If this happens in this year's campaign, he'll get away with it. This sets a very dangerous precedent.

It could also lead to voter cynicism and apathy, as discussed earlier. This could lead to democratic systems falling apart, and it is not safe for anyone.

What now?

We wait. With no accurate and active detection software, and no clear-cut way of controlling deepfakes, uncertainty fills the air. We can't predict what will happen. There are a few individuals who believe that this deepfake "paranoia" is simply that, and not a real threat. Wherever you stand on the matter, the rise of deepfakes is undeniable, and the questions they pose on society as we know it are complex and very, very real.

This blog is part of a project for Study Unit DGA3008, University of Malta, 2020.


Aubé, T. (2017.) AI, DeepFakes, and the End of Truth. Medium.

Christopher, N. (2020.) We’ve Just Seen the First Use of Deepfakes in an Indian Election Campaign. Vice.

Galston, W. A. (2020.) Is seeing still believing? The deepfake challenge to truth in politics. Brookings.

Parkin, S. (2019.) 'Politicians fear this like fire': The rise of the deepfake and the threat to democracy. The Guardian.

Shao, G. (2019.) Fake videos could be the next big problem in the 2020 elections. CNBC.

Sumagaysay, L. (2019.) California has a new deepfakes law in time for 2020 election. The Mercury News.

Theobold, B. (2019.) Deepfakers beware: Do it in California or Texas and you’ll be in deep trouble. The Fulcrum.

Toews, R. (2020.) Deepfakes are going to wreak havoc on society. We are not prepared. Forbes.

Venkataramakrishnan, S. (2019.) Can you believe your eyes? How deepfakes are coming for politics. Financial Times.

Vincent, J. (2018.) US lawmakers say AI deepfakes ‘have the potential to disrupt every facet of our society’. The Verge.

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