Deepfakes: Visual Effects For The Post-Truth World

"Ooh, ah" - that's how it always starts.

Another week passes, and another deepfake video does the rounds on the internet. This one is replaces Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future with Tom Holland and Robert Downey Jr., respectively. Next week, there'll be another such video. We'll click it, chuckle at the novelty, and move on. Beyond blithely saying “haha lol,” most people probably don’t give deepfakes a second thought. But they should.

Deepfakes differ from the 3D face replacement typically employed in Hollywood VFX studios. In fact, no 3D rendering is involved at all. Instead, a machine-learning algorithm analyses a target face’s movement and lighting conditions, then replaces the face with another, sourced from whatever images the creator has at hand as reference. Feed it a wider variety of source images, and a more convincing result emerges. You can download the code and do it yourself; you only need time, a little technical nous, and the will to do it.

Like all video-adjacent technology, deepfakes first saw significant use in pornography, flooding the Internet with videos that to the untrained (or horny) eye look like celebrities doing porn. Otherwise, it’s mostly used for comedy, like putting Steve Buscemi’s face on Jennifer Lawrence, or swapping Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny De Vito in Twins. Sometimes, deepfakers reinstate a role’s “original” casting (like Tom Selleck as Indiana Jones), bring actors like Bruce Lee back from the dead, or - in this latest case - ponder remakes of classics with Marvel Cinematic Universe stars. It’d shock me if it wasn’t used regularly in major productions moving forward, if only to replace doubles' faces.

It's not a laughing matter, though. Jordan Peele has spoken (below) on how it’s all too easy to make public figures say things they wouldn’t ordinarily say. SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris wrote an editorial supporting a bill that would give actors legal rights over their images. It’s easy to see deepfakes' potential for political news-cycle abuse, and for what amounts to theft of actors’ most important professional tool - their face. Think of how many times you’ve seen public figures on television; every frame adds to a potential arsenal of deepfake fodder. Homebrewed celebrity impersonator deepfakes already litter YouTube; imagine what a well-resourced operation - or someone bearing enough hatred - could create.

Worse still are the potential implications for regular folks, whose potential appearance in deepfakes would likely be driven more by malice than comedy. As Carteris writes, “it is only a matter of time before a schoolteacher loses her job because of one of these deepfake videos.” Angry exes, 8chan trolls, or anyone with an axe to grind can wield enormous power with this technology, especially if their targets live or work amongst the technologically unsavvy. The videos you’ll find on YouTube right now may be funny, but to a more concerned mind, they feel like children naively playing with guns.

The ramifications go further. We all scoffed at R. Kelly’s “Little Man Defense” in 2008, which referenced the Wayans Bros film Little Man to suggest that Kelly's face had been digitally inserted into an allegedly incriminating sex tape. Given Kelly’s subsequent allegations, that laughable defense was quite clearly legal chaff. Slowly, however, the concept behind it is becoming more convincing. Deepfake technology is more accessible in 2020 than CGI was in 2008. It still takes work to produce convincing results, and even the best examples bear hallmarks of the process, but anyone can produce a deepfake. The legal and PR battles required to expose fraud or prove authenticity could become much more onerous, should deepfake tech grow a smidge more effective.

At that point, though, it kinda doesn’t matter: the damage has been done. Video evidence has enormous psychological staying power, and misinformation has been demonstrated to spread faster than truth. Social media only amplifies those effects. Anyone attempting to debunk a deepfake is written off as a “well, actually” nitpicker, another talking-head obfuscator, thanks to the various cognitive biases at play. Doubt is sufficient to ruin.

The ultimate destination of the Deepfake Express is more philosophically terrifying than any court case, identity theft, or political attack. If anything can be faked, everything could be faked - which, not coincidentally, perfectly reflects our current political situation. "Fake news” insults, coupled with outright lies, have achieved a broad goal of eroding public trust not just in reporting of truth, but in the truth itself. If everyone tells you conflicting stories, the instinctive mental response is to simply shut down. In this "fucked-up dystopia," as Peele puts it, what ends up mattering is what feels true. With no common understanding of fact and fiction, thought gets smaller, societies get more insular, and charismatic despots have the upper hand. 

We live in an age in which the authentic "Pee Tape" could be released and simply shrugged off, even as actual fakes end less-public careers. The technology isn’t going away. We can’t un-invent it. We can only learn to navigate this confusing world. As always, the best solution is to stay informed. And you’re in luck: I've got a video to show you where Walter Cronkite explains it all. Totally real. I promise.