Deepfake Video of U.K. Leader Sets Scary Precedent For 2020 U.S. Election


When a video of United Kingdom Prime Minister Boris Johnson emerged Tuesday morning, something about it seemed very odd.

The video starts out conventionally enough: It looks like Johnson is making his usual stump speech in the midst of the U.K.’s snap general election — he speaks about a divided country and high-running emotions over Brexit — until suddenly 20 seconds in, when Johnson endorses his rival, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, for prime minister.

A similar video of Corbyn also surfaced, appearing to show the Labour leader endorsing Johnson for Prime Minister. Both videos quickly out themselves as deepfakes: Manipulated videos produced by the U.K.-based think tank Future Advocacy in collaboration with artist Bill Posters, who was also responsible for the recent Mark Zuckerberg and Kim Kardashian deepfake videos that went viral.

Areeq Chowdhury, Future Advocacy’s head of think tank, told Digital Trends that the group is trying to “use shock and humor” to raise awareness of the deepfake problem during this election. “All democracies, all parts of society will be affected by this,” Chowdhury said. “Business, media, individuals; it’s a bit like climate change. It needs to be tackled collectively, and that just hasn’t happened.”

Speaking to Digital Trends, Posters said he’s long been interested in “interrogating different types of corporate and state propaganda in the public space.”

“I’m most concerned about the way propaganda was not only influencing the decisions we made online, but also influencing how people voted,” he said. “As an artist, it was really interesting to explore deepfake tech, and create moving images and video pieces to bring light to these obscure issues.”

As the U.K. grapples with the snap election and the long running Brexit controversy, the U.S. is staring down the long barrel of its 2020 presidential election, with the specter of the social media mess that was the 2016 presidential election still overshadowing much of everyday politics. Deepfake videos were in their infancy during the last cycle, but are poised to create an even bigger problem next year.

“Trump has already been caught retweeting Neo-Nazis,” cybersecurity expert Dr. Richard Forno told Digital Trends. “I think this will be a problem generated by him and his campaign.” Forno, the assistant director of the Center for Cybersecurity at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has 20 years of working in the cybersecurity sector behind him. He said he’s particularly concerned about what Future Advocacy has called the “liar’s dividend,” defined as when real footage of controversial content is dismissed as fake.

“If you’re sowing enough confusion, and people don’t know what to believe, this will be a huge problem for western democracy,” said Forno, who added that computers and electronic data already define a huge slice of our reality. “When you go to the DMV to renew your license, and suddenly they tell you that you have three unpaid parking tickets, you might say, ‘no I don’t,’ but they’ll say, ‘yes you do, the computer says so!’ The computer is always right.”

Looking at the deepfakes that Future Advocacy produced, Forno said the videos were clever, and “the average person would probably believe them.”

In a press statement, Future Advocacy explicitly said the videos were a stunt, and called on “all political parties to work together to raise awareness of the dangers surrounding online disinformation.” It also points to what it calls “four key challenges” that need to be solved regarding deepfakes: How to detect deepfakes, dealing with the liar’s dividend, having effective regulation, and limiting damage.

“The responsibility for protecting democracy shouldn’t be outsourced to private companies in Silicon Valley,” Chowdhury said. “This is a problematic position that we’re in.” He pointed out that technology has changed so fast that the laws simply haven’t kept up. “Protecting democracy should be the priority of politicians, and they’re not stepping up at the moment.”

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