A video could show a journalist on the street asking the Chilean president, Gabriel Boric, about the political figures that have influenced him the most, and he would answer without hesitation: “Mao and the Chinese revolution. Period.” Another video might show Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador at his daily morning conference announcing that, due to the successful regaining of government control of oil and electricity, foreign banks will be expropriated. And another might show Joe Biden sitting at his desk in the White House Oval Office announcing the criminalization of Latin American migration as part of his campaign platform. None of these videos exist, but if they had been found and if they had been reproduced in the reels and stories that go viral on social networks, we would not have been suspicious of their existence. Why should we doubt it? Because if they did exist, they would most likely be deepfakes. That is, videos created from different technological artificial intelligence tools which can make anyone say anything.
These technological tools, which allow us to create innovative videos for education or advertising, can also lead to political instability and increase the climate of polarization in our societies. The complexity of deepfakes is such that the two most representative cases are contradictory.
Throughout 2018, the President of Gabon, Ali Bongo, did not appear in public. Rumors about him suffering from a serious illness, or even about his death, were increasing. To stop them, toward the end of the year, the president appeared in a video in which he wished a “happy new year” to the Gabonese. The video was real, but his opponents assumed it was fake and attempted a coup d’état.
This year, Venezuela’s state television broadcast a video in which a host of a supposed news agency, House of News, told of the good health of the Venezuelan economy. Later it was shown that the videos were deepfakes, that is, clips created by the Venezuelan Government and distributed with the intention of making the “good news” viral.
Despite their differences, both cases show us that deepfakes open a new field of social problems because they lead us to question the criterion of truth in our today’s society: the image.
While a fake news story can be recognized, for example, by its sloppy wording or lack of reliable references, a deepfake is constructed based on visual elements that give it the necessary verisimilitude to make us believe that what we are seeing is real. Aspects as familiar as the presidential office or a morning conference are the appropriate vehicle for a deepfake to impose a lie. This is because since the image leaves the content of the message beyond any doubt.
From the audiovisual language, the deepfake seeks to position in the media sphere an issue that is beneficial or detrimental to a specific individual or group. By emptying the image itself of veracity, an infinite number of impacts are produced that can generate divisions and social prejudices and increase polarization.
At the same time, digital manipulation allows real statements and facts to be denied by their authors or by any other person, either because the author plays the manipulation card, that is, appeals that such video or image is a deepfake created to harm him or, perhaps worse, because he changes his position on a fact, i.e., initially accepts his authorship and, sometime later, argues that it was a deepfake.
Therefore, deepfakes cover digital communication in a media doubt that places audiences in the worst scenario: any video, image, or audio must be questioned. The regime of truth legitimized by the image would mean the end of sayings and facts to impose media doubt.
How far can deepfakes go? Will we be aware of the ethical limits to prevent their dissemination? Will we be able to limit the perverse effects they may entail? Or are deepfakes the chronicle of a lost battle?
In the 17th century, the French philosopher René Descartes, seeking absolutely certain knowledge, imagined that an evil genius was making him doubt all his experiences. In the 21st century, the evil genius is the deepfakes, and they are establishing a regime of media doubt that will lead us to stop worrying about the truth because everything could be false.
*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva