The issue was thrust into the national spotlight last month when Buzzfeed partnered with the filmmaker Jordan Peele to create a video of former President Barack Obama appearing to deliver a public service announcement about the potential impact of manipulated media. Only it wasn’t Obama.
Instead it was Peele’s impersonation of Obama, synced well enough with the former president’s lips to keep viewers open to the possibility it could be authentic until the message itself became a clear parody.
The video showcases both the potential and the limits of where the technology stands. A casual observer could be forgiven at first for mistaking the video for a genuine presidential message, especially if watching on a mobile device. A closer look is less impressive, but it may not be long before the signs of tampering become nearly impossible to pick up with the untrained eye.
Hany Farid, a digital forensics expert at Dartmouth College, said there has been a “startling improvement” over the past year in technology creating “deep fakes,” the artificial intelligence that allows users to swap people’s faces with relative ease.
“If there’s two dozen people in the world who can create fakes, that’s a risk,” Farid said. “But it’s very different than if 2,000 people or 20,000 people or 200,000 people can do the same thing because now it’s at the push of a button.”
Anyone with a mobile phone can now do the types of video effects that once required expensive software and extensive training; convincingly fake video addresses paired well with audio still require a certain level of expertise.
But other threats come from openly available tools like Lyrebird, a company that can create “digital copies” of voices that can be made to say anything, or real-time facial re-enactments like the ones researchers in Germany and at the University of Stanford unveiled in recent years.
“This is terrifying,” Shane Greer, co-owner of the publication “Campaigns & Elections,” told hundreds of digital consultants during a presentation on new forms of fake media at a tech conference in Washington last week.
Greer has delivered the talk to political consultants in the U.S. and Europe, and will soon add Mexico to the list, which is currently dealing with its own fake news problem ahead of elections on July 1.
The technology has already been “weaponized” in at least one instance in the U.S., Greer says, when a doctored animation of Parkland shooting survivor Emma Gonzalez tearing the Constitution quickly swept across conservative social media. In the original image, part of a Teen Vogue story on the youth-led movement to curb gun violence, Gonzalez rips in half a shooting range target, not the Constitution. The fraudulent image was shared thousands of times before Gab, a popular alternative to Twitter among members of the alt-right, called it “obviously a parody/satire.”
“Consider what was done with the Emma Gonzalez video now versus where that technology will be two, three and four years from now and what both those in the U.S. and international actors will be able to do to disrupt the democratic process,” Greer said.
The issue is on the minds of lawmakers like Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. He is helping lead one of the congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and has co-sponsored legislation, stalled so far, aimed at forcing websites like Facebook and Google to disclose more information about political ads appearing on their platforms.
“People will demand action being taken if we don’t find a way to collaborate [with technology companies] on this,” Warner told NBC News. “And the notion that the market is going to fix this or the tech companies themselves will police this, I just don’t think that’s going to be the case.”