Commentary: Deepfakes Are Here

One of the most shared memes on social media today also speaks directly to one of its most serious of problems. It’s a picture of George Washington with this quote  and attribution superimposed above: “Don’t believe everything you read on the internet.” – George Washington”

I’m absolutely certain that every single reader of this column gets the humor. The internet was something that Washington simply couldn’t comment on. But, I’m less certain of how carefully every reader fact checks what he shares on the internet.

As I have written many times before, I truly think the internet will prove to be one of humanity’s greatest inventions. The access it gives everyone to information of every imaginable kind, information previously sealed away and physically remote, is mind-boggling to even think about.

The downside, however, is that it is information without guardrails. And that is because the internet gives every individual the right to be a content creator, publisher and distributor completely free of any regulatory oversight. 

For the most part, people are generally truthful in the original content they share on the internet. As an example, when you read a comment someone leaves on a social media posting, you are reading the actual and truthful opinion of the person. 

Where it all falls apart, however, is when we share the original content created by sources with dubious motives. Content not fact checked. Content with unverified, misleading, or flat out untruthful claims.

There are some powerful tools at your fingertips should you want to fact check and verify someone else’s content before you share it. Snopes, PolitiFact, FactCheck.Org, ProPublica, and OpenSecrets come to mind as the best and most reliable. 

Or perhaps you will just continue to share dubious unchecked information because it satisfies your need for confirmation bias. The choice is yours. 

But there is a new threat to information sharing rising on the internet that I want to warn people about. Well, maybe not all people, but at least those who actually care about the truth and facts. 

It’s called deepfake technology. And it is downright scary. So much so that it prompted this recent headline in Forbes magazine: “Deepfakes Are Going to Wreak Havoc on Society. We Are Not Prepared.” 

Whoa. Forbes is taking this threat seriously. So am I.

So exactly what are deepfakes? The word itself is a mash up of “deep learning” and “fake.” 

Deepfakes are a new type of synthetic media that leverages artificial intelligence and machine learning to generate visual and audio content that looks and sounds realistic, but is, in reality, completely “faked.” 

As such, it can be used in sinisterly deceptive ways, particularly in politics.

For example, there is a deepfake video of Barack Obama being widely shared on the internet right now. 

The video is, in fact, Barack Obama. The voice sounds exactly like him. But what he is saying are words that neither he, nor any other former president, would ever utter in public. 

And deepfakes are bipartisan in their deception. There are several Deepfakes of Donald Trump as well. 

Deepfakes are the natural technological evolution of image manipulation. Photographic editing has been around since digital photography first arrived in the 1950s. And video editing for the same period. 

Shallowfakes, videos either presented out of context, or doctored with simple editing tools, have become increasingly common in politics over the past few years. Remember the video of Nancy Pelosi’s speech that was intentionally slowed down to make it sound like she was slurring her words?

But deepfakes are taking intentional deception to the ultimate level: creating a false video and sound record that is impossible for the viewer to know whether it is real. 

In fact, the only way to detect one is to build and run algorithmic programs similar to those used to create the deepfake in the first place – a  technological feat beyond almost all of us.

Clearly, where deepfakes can do the most damage is in our election process. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., put it this way: “In the old days, to threaten the United States, you needed 10 aircraft carriers, and nuclear weapons, and long-range missiles. 

“Today all you need is … a realistic fake video that could undermine our elections, that could throw our country into a tremendous crisis internally, and weaken us deeply.”

Every one of our foreign adversaries knows exactly that. And what if one decides to release a devastating video just days before our presidential election?

Brace yourself. Deepfakes are going to wreak havoc. And we are not prepared.