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8th November 2019

Deepfakes and doctored videos: the new era of political propaganda

Nimo Omer argues that deepfakes are a small part of a wider problem that we have with lies and deception in society
Deepfakes and doctored videos: the new era of political propaganda
Photo: John Morgan @ Flickr

Deepfakes, doctored videos, manipulated words; these are the things that have not only entirely taken over the internet but our general political discourse as well.

A few days ago the Conservative party uploaded a doctored video onto twitter which gave the impression that Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit Secretary, completely buckled under questions about Brexit, with the caption saying: “Labour has no plan for Brexit”. The actual video clearly shows Starmer providing a full answer to the questions posed to him.

This brazen and clear manipulation of an easily attainable video indicates a new turn in political campaigning; one that is outwardly based on lies and falsified evidence. But the truth is many people, weathered from decades of being sold fairy tales, will turn around and, rightly, ask: “okay, what’s new?”.

And the answer? Well, not much. 

A few weeks ago numerous articles were written on deepfakes; what they are, how they operate, their potential political, and the social consequences. A moral panic was, and still is, on the horizon, about the potential tech-driven dystopia that deepfakes might send us down.

If you have been living under a rock or, heaven forbid, have an actual life that isn’t permanently rooted in keeping up with the latest hellish trends that have taken over social media, a deepfake is an ‘AI based technology used to produce or alter video content’ by superimposing existing images and videos onto other pieces of footage.

Whilst this technology has existed for a few years, it’s increasingly become more sophisticated and difficult to detect on your own. And so with it comes a plethora of worries and anxieties about its misuse – worries that have been realised in the form of political misinformation and revenge porn. 

This, however, is only the next chapter of our long, long tale with distorted information and twisted facts. The truth is, deepfakes are only symptomatic of a wider problem that we have with the truth. Conspiracy theories, that a decade ago would’ve required a tin foil hat, have found their way into mainstream political discourse and Boris Johnson’s dalliance with falsehoods and fallacies has earned him a job as Prime Minister.

These aren’t transgressions or unfortunate consequences of politics. This is politics. And those who are able to wield these lies and half-truths effectively are the ones who have power. Whether it is disgruntled men seeking to shame ex-partners, journalists being humiliated online for doing their jobs, or politicians hoodwinking the general public; there is an inherent imbalance of power and, generally speaking, regaining it seems an almost impossible task.

Deepfakes are simply the latest apotheosis of the way we consume information online. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that we don’t need a hyper-realistic video of someone saying or doing something that they didn’t actually say or do to believe that it happened; all it actually takes, apparently, is two minutes on movie maker and some sloppy editing. In fact, a lot of the time we don’t even need that. Stick a number on the side of a big red bus and people will eat it up.

And whilst Twitter has at least tried to set a precedent by banning political campaigning on it’s site, Facebook, still, has not. It is becoming abundantly clear that unless we want to live in a post-truth world, we will have to seriously start regulating or breaking up these massive social media companies in order to keep people safe and still have a functioning democracy.

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