Five years ago, nobody had even heard of deepfakes, the persuasive-looking but false video and audio files made with the help of artificial intelligence. Now, they’re being used to impact the course of a war. In addition to the fake Zelesnky video, which went viral last week, there was another widely circulated deepfake video depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin supposedly declaring peace in the Ukraine war.
Neither of the recent videos of Zelensky or Putin came close to TikTok Tom Cruise’s high production values (they were noticeably low resolution, for one thing, which is a common tactic for hiding flaws.) But experts still see them as dangerous. That’s because they show the lighting speed with which high-tech disinformation can now spread around the globe. As they become increasingly common, deepfake videos make it harder to tell fact from fiction online, and all the more so during a war that is unfolding online and rife with misinformation. Even a bad deepfake risks muddying the waters further.
“Once this line is eroded, truth itself will not exist,” said Wael Abd-Almageed, a research associate professor at the University of Southern California and founding director of the school’s Visual Intelligence and Multimedia Analytics Laboratory. “If you see anything and you cannot believe it anymore, then everything becomes false. It’s not like everything will become true. It’s just that we will lose confidence in anything and everything.”
Deepfakes during war
Siwei Lyu, director of the computer vision and machine learning lab at University at Albany, thinks this was because the technology “was not there yet.” It just wasn’t easy to make a good deepfake, which requires smoothing out obvious signs that a video has been tampered with (such as weird-looking visual jitters around the frame of a person’s face) and making it sound like the person in the video was saying what they appeared to be saying (either via an AI version of their actual voice or a convincing voice actor).
Now, it’s easier to make better deepfakes, but perhaps more importantly, the circumstances of their use are different. The fact that they are now being used in an attempt to influence people during a war is especially pernicious, experts told CNN Business, simply because the confusion they sow can be dangerous.
Under normal circumstances, Lyu said, deepfakes may not have much impact beyond drawing interest and getting traction online. “But in critical situations, during a war or a national disaster, when people really can’t think very rationally and they only have a very truly short span of attention, and they see something like this, that’s when it becomes a problem,” he added.
“You’re talking about one video,” she said. The larger problem remains.
“Nothing actually beats human eyes”
As deepfakes get better, researchers and companies are trying to keep up with tools to spot them.
There are issues with automated detection, however, such as that it gets trickier as deepfakes improve. In 2018, for instance, Lyu developed a way to spot deepfake videos by tracking inconsistencies in the way the person in the video blinked; less than a month later, someone generated a deepfake with realistic blinking.
“We’re going to see this a lot more, and relying on platform companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter is probably not sufficient,” he said. “Nothing actually beats human eyes.”