Deep Fakes: Getting Too Real?

Category: Photography , Video

Most people realize that photographs are easily faked. Audio recordings, too, can be manipulated or even created from whole cloth. Now it seems video is becoming a new frontier in which what you see and hear cannot be trusted. I’m not talking about simply editing video to omit or re-order parts of it. I mean computer-generated video that realistically depicts a real person doing things he or she never really did. Here's what you need to know about deep fake videos...

What is a Deep Fake?

Ubiquity often results in a noun becoming a verb. We "xerox" a document, or we "photoshop" a picture. Speaking of the latter, you might think the art of retouching or manipulating photos had something to do with the advent of the Adobe Photoshop software in the late 1980s. The truth is, it's been going on since the mid 1800s. The History of Retouching is a fascinating look at the techniques used over the past 150 years, along with some famous examples. Photographic post-processing has long been used in fashion, beauty, art, and political contexts.

The development of software that makes digital image manipulation a point-and-click affair is what moved the process out of the darkroom and into the hands of the masses. And you don't need to spend hundreds on Adobe Photoshop. See my articles Photo Editing Apps and Online Photo Editors to find links to free image editing tools.

It seems harmless to crop a picture, retouch a photo to eliminate facial blemishes, or "accentuate the positive" in a variety of ways. You might start to feel differently about online tools such as that make it super easy to remove the background of a photo, or Deep Angel which lets you selectively delete objects from a scene. But when this technology moves into the realm of video and audio manipulation, it gets a little darker, and scarier.

Deep Fake Videos

The technique is known as “deep fake,” and of course it’s enabled by artificial intelligence, neural networking, and machine learning. Here’s a harmless example: actor Nicolas Cage inserted into several well-known movie scenes. YouTube has quite a few examples of deep fakes, some good and others easily dismissed.

Creating a deep fake video takes some free, open-source software such as DeepFaceLab, a powerful graphics processing card, and lots of images of the person(s) you wish to fake. Machine learning, after all, requires tons of data from which to learn. Celebrities and politicians provide ideal fodder for deep fakes. But the software described in this video claims a breakthrough, such that only one photo of the target is needed to generate videos that mimic mouth, eye and other facial movements realistically.

Deep Fakes for Fun, Profit, and Deception

A light-hearted deep fake put comedian Steve Buscemi’s head on the shoulders of “Hunger Games” star Jennifer Lawrence. Obviously, deception was not the author’s intent. But a number of actresses have been victims of deep fakes that superimposed their likenesses on the leading ladies of "adult" films.

Actress Scarlett Johansson is one of the best-known deep fake victims. Dozens of bogus salacious clips of her have been viewed millions of times. (Ironically, Ms. Johansson played the faceless voice of an artificial intelligence in the 2013 sci-fi film, “Her”) She was also victimized in 2011, when she was among several celebrities whose private photos were stolen and posted online; the hacker responsible drew a ten-year prison sentence. But sadly, Johannson said to the Washington Post, “The fact is that trying to protect yourself from the internet and its depravity is basically a lost cause, for the most part.”

The popularity of video conferencing has made it possible to deepfake your own face during online meetings, in real time. Avatarify runs on Skype and Zoom, and face-swaps your own face with a celebrity in live video calls.

Perhaps most alarming is the truth that deep fakes have the potential to alter the outcomes of elections. A Seattle TV editor was fired in January, 2019, after a doctored version of President Trump’s nationwide address went out over the air. Several deep fake videos of former President Obama can be found online. It isn’t hard to see how deep fakery could destroy the reputation of a politician or anyone else.

Should We Be Concerned About Deep Fakes?

For the most part, deep fakes are still pretty obviously fakes, once viewers take a good look at them. But the technology is improving at lightning speed as machine learning and artificial intelligence make rapid advances. Many experts are concerned that we will soon find it difficult to tell real video from fake, even when it depicts people we know.

Deep fake tech potentially takes “fake news” to the next level. It further undermines our ability to tell the difference between truth and lies. In such a world, it becomes more important than ever to get our information from trusted sources and avoid sharing every sketchy meme that sparks our outrage.

An article from TechDirt suggests that we shouldn't "go off the deep end" when considering the future impact of deep fake video. We've long accepted the fact that photos can lie, the author says. So "who is to say," he then wonders, "that societal response to deep fakes will not evolve similarly to the response to digitally edited photographs?"

I have my doubts. How about you? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Deep Fakes: Getting Too Real?"

Posted by:

17 Apr 2020

Great article Bob! Certainly opened my eyes to not take photos and videos as the truth without questioning them.

Posted by:

John E
17 Apr 2020

Bob, The “problem“ is that in thIs day and age when people question most facts, they still tend to believe their own eyes, ears and senses.

Deep fakes will be used to circumvent peoples’ Existing BS detectors and take advantage of their distrust in conventional information sources. The objective will be to create turmoil, particularly revolving around political actions and elections.

When you have learned to distrust, or at least question, most information that comes your way, the only remaining Avenue is what you see and hear with your eyes and ears. Bad actors will pray upon that dependence.

People are often gullible and that confluence of events can become dangerous to our society and to our democracy. And the collapse of trust is the objective of America’s enemies.

Posted by:

Frank Starr
17 Apr 2020

It seems that rabid attacks have displaced logical discussion, now more than ever. Even though I'll share your article on Facebook, I don't hold out much hope for it doing enough good.

Posted by:

P Rosenberger
17 Apr 2020

Excellent article. Walt Disney's animated movies have obviously used the art to do amazing things, fortunately, not very many 'bad' things. But we often observe political communications that are simply lies. Drawing the line between truth and fiction is becoming so difficult, I have become suspicious of nearly all I see, read or hear. VERY SAD.

Posted by:

Irv E.
17 Apr 2020

John E's point is well taken. I believe that he is referring to the "liar's dividend." A person can lie about something, get caught in the lie and then claim that the original video was a deep fake. There is also the tendency for people to even begin to disbelieve the truth.

Posted by:

18 Apr 2020

Carrie Fisher as "Princess Leia" is still making new Star Wars movies, well after she has died, but her character continues to be on screen, and there is no way to tell the difference!
Fisher died on December 27, 2016, following Fisher's death, "The Rise of Skywalker" began filming on August 1, 2018".
She has continued to "appear" in each film ever since.

Posted by:

John Anderson
18 Apr 2020

I had an uncle who was in Military Intelligence in the Second world war. He told me many times when I was a teenager:

If you can see it:
If you can hear it;
if you can feel it;
If you can taste it;
if you can smell it—
It MAY be true...but you cannot count on it being true.

Posted by:

20 Apr 2020

I always said that you can't believe a photograph unless you can study the original Negative.

(even then you need an expert to give some assurance)

Posted by:

21 Apr 2020

It appears others are also concerned with 'deepfakes':
Join the Deepfake Detection Challenge (DFDC)

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