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The Deepfake Phenomenon: Telling “Fact From Face” in a World of Digital Fakery

In the 1997 action thriller Face/Off, actors John Travolta and Nicholas Cage trade places after an experimental surgery is used to replace each man’s face with the other. In the film, Travolta’s character is an FBI agent named Sean Archer, which poses problems for him when the face of Cage’s character, criminal Castor Troy, becomes his own… and he has to stop the real criminal who is now impersonating him.

Perhaps the premise of this film–and actor Nicholas Cage’s role in it–played at least some part in the recent popularity associated with a video trend involving what are called “deepfakes.” These use advanced digital manipulations to superimpose one person’s face onto another body, which have resulted in a number of compilations like the one below, depicting the Face/Off actor in a variety of roles, from Lois Lane to Indiana Jones:

At first glance, the use of digital technology to create weird mashups with Nicholas Cage, or anybody else, for that matter, may seem benign. However, Kevin Roose, writing for the New York Times noted the concerns that can arise, ontologically and otherwise, from the creation of deepfake videos. “Does a naked image of Person A become a naked image of Person B if Person B’s face is superimposed in a seamless and untraceable way,” Roose asked. “In a broader sense, on the internet, what is the difference between representation and reality?”

Some might say no, that if it’s just a computer simulation, then it isn’t real. However, much like in the film Face/Off, questions arise as to whether deepfake technology might be used in far more nefarious ways. Rather than meme-worthy snippets on YouTube and Reddit threads where actors faces are replaced with that of Nicholas Cage, legitimate concerns could arise from a person’s face being misrepresented in a number of ways… from crime scenes to other compromising situations like the set of pornographic films.

In fact, one video appearing on Reddit recently did just that: by superimposing the face of former first lady Michelle Obama onto that of an adult actress performing a striptease. While intended as humor, the distasteful potential for such technology has many people on edge, with some likening it to a real-life variant of the popular Netflix series Black Mirror.

Duarte Pereira, Senior Vice President of FITECH, a digital business consulting firm, told CBS affiliates in New York that part of what is so alarming about the deepfake phenomenon is the rate at which users are learning to implement the technology almost seamlessly.

“It’s very concerning because as people get better with this software we’re able to not just use celebrities, they’re able to use a neighbor in a video and compromise that person,” Pereira told CBSNewYork.

There are other questions that the existence and proliferation of technology like this raises. While computer generated imagery and advanced CGI graphic technology has already existed for years, with its ease of use and accessibility, the lines are further blurred between what might be deemed “real” and “fake” in terms of virtually anything appearing online.

For example, back in December, shortly after the New York Times article by Leslie Kean divulged information about the Pentagon’s somewhat secret UFO study program, a pair of videos of unidentified objects were released by Tom DeLonge and his To The Stars Academy, one of which was purported to corroborate with a famous 2004 UFO incident involving the USS Nimitz. However, as reported by Andreas Muller at the website www.grenzwissenschaft-aktuell.de (and later translated to English for OpenMinds.tv), the video had apparently been known to exist online since as early as 2007, just three years after the incident took place.

However, more concerning than its long residence on the web had been the fact that Muller found it had been archived on the website of a film production company called Vision Unlimited:

[S]ince 2007 the so-called “WaybackMachine” of the internet archive “Web.Archive.org” shows a download-option for the video under the name “f4.mpg” via the website or server of the German film production company “Vision Unlimited” (VU) based at the town of Uhingen. VU’s specialties include 2- and 3D animations as well as special effects.

Understandably, this fact still raises doubts among many observers, investigators and skeptics about the authenticity and origin of the video, which is described by the “New York Times” and the “To The Stars Academy” as “officially released by the US government”.

The fact that this footage appeared on the website of a German film production company doesn’t immediately rule it out as a fake. As one professional video editor with an American production company recently suggested to me, in her past experience there were a number of times where video footage had been brought to her company in order to assist with helping groups like law enforcement and others to analyze the film in various ways. It very well could be that this is why the German company possessed the alleged USS Nimitz footage; still, with no further details in order to help clarify this issue, it leaves a lot to the imagination.

In other words, theories naturally come to mind involving the potential the footage could be some kind of digital manipulation, in which case questions over the motive for this also must be considered. This is by no means to suggest that the footage is a hoax, but its association with a company that specializes in things like digitally created video effects raises doubts… and plenty of eyebrows.

We can only expect more of the same in the years to come, and with the prevalence and ease of access to programs that create simple, but convincing digital renderings, we can only imagine how difficult it may be within the next few years to tell fact from fiction… or in the case of the deepfake phenomenon, “fact from face.”

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Micah Hanks is a writer, podcaster, and researcher whose interests cover a variety of subjects. His areas of focus include history, science, philosophy, current events, cultural studies, technology, unexplained phenomena, and ways the future of humankind may be influenced by science and innovation in the coming decades. In addition to writing, Micah hosts the Middle Theory and Gralien Report podcasts.
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