Deepfakes: Well-equipped digital citizens are our society’s best defence

More than a decade ago, Internet analyst and new media scholar Clay Shirky said: “The only real way to end spam is to shut down e-mail communication.” Will shutting down the Internet be the only way to end deepfake propaganda in 2020? 

Today, anyone can create their own fake news and also break it. Online propaganda is more misleading and manipulative than ever. 

Deepfakes, a particular form of disinformation that uses machine-learning algorithms to create audio and video of real people saying and doing things they never said or did, are moving quickly toward being indistinguishable from reality

Detecting disinformation powered by unethical uses of digital media, big data and artificial intelligence, and their spread through social media, is of the utmost urgency. 

Countries must educate and equip their citizens. Educators also face real challenges in helping youth develop eagle eyes for deepfakes. If young people lack confidence in finding and evaluating reliable public information, their motivation for participating in or relying on our democratic structures will be increasingly at risk. 

Endless possibilities

The creative possibilities of deepfake technology are endless. 

It is now possible to generate a video of a person speaking and making ordinary expressions from just a few or even a single image of this person’s face. Face swap apps such as FaceApp and lip-sync apps such as Dubsmash are examples of accessible user-friendly basic deepfake tools that people can use without any programming or coding background.

Face-morphing technology that made faces transition from one into another in Michael Jackson’s “Black and White” video emerged as a benign innovation in the entertainment industries. This technology rapidly became used in pornographic videos, superimposing celebrities’ faces on the bodies of porn stars.

Hao Li, a deepfake pioneer, put the actor Paul Walker into the movie Furious 7, part of the Fast and Furious film franchise, after Walker’s death in a car accident. 

Undermining democracy

While the use of this technology may enrapture or stun viewers for its expert depictions in entertainment and gaming industries, the sinister face of deepfakes is a serious threat to both people’s security and democracy.

Deepfakes’ potential to be used as a weapon is alarmingly increasing and many harms can be anticipated based on people’s ability to create explicit content without others’ consent

It’s expected that people will use deepfakes to cyberbully, destroy reputations, blackmail, spread hate speech, incite violence, disrupt democratic processes, spread disinformation to targeted audiences and to commit cybercrime and frauds.

The introduction of artificial intelligence only helped to create more seamless videos, even harder to detect as fake.

Deepfake detection

Key players have ventured into finding a response to deepfake threats.

Facebook announced Jan. 6 it “will strengthen its policy toward misleading manipulated videos that have been identified as deepfakes.” The company says it will remove manipulated media that’s been “edited or synthesized — beyond adjustments for clarity or quality — in ways that aren’t apparent to an average person” and if the media is “the product of artificial intelligence or machine learning that merges, replaces or superimposes content onto a video, making it appear to be authentic.”

The news follows Facebook’s “deepfake challenge,” which aims to design new tools that detect manipulated media content. The challenge is supported by Microsoft, a consortium on artificial intelligence and a US$10-million fund. 

In late October, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified at a U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee hearing in Washington about the company’s cryptocurrency plans, where Zuckerberg faced questions about what the company is doing to prevent deepfakes.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) of the U.S. Department of Defense is working on using specific types of algorithms to assess the integrity of digital visual media. 

Some researchers discuss the use of convolutional neural networks — a set of algorithms that loosely replicates the human brain, designed to analyse visual imagery and recognize patterns — to detect the inconsistencies across the multiple frames in deepfakes. Others propose algorithms to detect completely generated faces

Hani Farid, an expert in digital forensics and one of the leading authorities on detecting fake photos, and his student Shruti Agarwal at University of California at Berkeley, are developing a software that uses the subtle characteristics of how a person speaks to distinguish this person from the fake version.

Farid is also collaborating very closely with deepfake pioneer Hao Li to confront the problem of “increasingly seamless off-the-shelf deception.”

YouTube nation

What if we wake up tomorrow to a deepfake of Greta Thunberg, Time’s 2019 Person of the year, accusing a specific organization to be the major catalyst of climate change? Would any youth be skeptical of the information?

We are living in a digital era when many people expect every answer to be found through a Google search, a YouTube or a Vimeo video or a TED talk. Nearly 100 per cent of Canadian youth beween 15 to 24 years old use the Internet on a daily basis. Most follow news and current affairs through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. 

In 2017, 90 per cent of Canadians aged 18 to 24 were active YouTube users. According to Statista, consumers’ demand for online videos is growing: between 2014 and 2019, there was an increase of 40 per cent of uploaded videos, with more than 500 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute since May 2019.

Many of today’s 18 to 24-year-old social media users recognize agendas and algorithms behind the posts that pop up on their walls. They crave to become influencers and disrupt public commentary and media-generated messages about issues that affect their lives. 

However, the deepfake phenomenon is a new critical challenge they face. 

Education for resilience

Technological deepfake detection solutions, no matter how good they get, will not prevent all deepfakes from getting circulated. Further, Villasenor, a professor of engineering, public policy, law, and management at UCLA explains that legal remedies “will have limited utility in addressing the potential damage that deepfakes can do, particularly given the short timescales that characterize the creation.” Legal remedies, he notes, are generally applied only after the deepfake is already in circulation. 

In Canada, Journalists for Human Rights announced a new program, Fighting Disinformation through Strengthened Media and Citizen Preparedness in Canada. Funded by Heritage Canada, the program aims to train journalists in fighting and exposing disinformation and to enhance citizen preparedness against online manipulation and misinformation.

Finland and Denmark claim to have developed their youth’s resilience to disinformation through education

If youth consider the deepfake phenomenon as solely entertaining they might have their guards down when faced with a fake video and interpret the shared information as reliable. Alternately, if they view deepfakes as a menace, they could come to doubt every piece of information shared online through video-sharing platforms. They could consequently not only lose limitless learning opportunities but may totally lose confidence in the notion of reliable public information. This could affect their motivation for participating in or relying on our democratic structures. 

While the big tech giants and researchers in AI and related fields are hard-working to contain disinformation, and this will not happen in a snap-of-a-finger, educators can play a key role in fostering youth agency to detect deepfakes and reduce their influence.

One challenge is ensuring youth learn critical media literacy skills while they continue to explore valuable resources online and build their capacities and knowledge to participate in democratic structures. 

Following steps I have identified in the “Get Ready to Act Against Social Media Propaganda” model — beginning with explaining stances on a controversial issue targeted through social media propaganda — educators can help youth discuss how they perceive and recognize deepfakes. They can explore the content’s origins, who it’s targeting, the reaction it’s trying to achieve and who’s behind it. They can also discuss youth’s role and responsibility to respond and stand up to disinformation and potential digital strategies to pursue in this process.

In a context where deepfakes’ potential to be weaponized is alarmingly increasing and technological deepfake detection solutions, no matter how good they get, will not prevent every single manipulated content from getting circulated, A well-equipped generation of digital citizens could be our best bet.

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