Deepfakes are more than silly games and pranks. At least on five accounts, they almost had the power to change the political course of entire countries.
What many think of when hearing the word “deepfake” are viral videos of Tom Cruise “goofing around” on Tik Tok. Yet, it’s the most harmless example of what a recording posing as a famous person can do.
As seen in the video of Barack Obama created by Jordan Peele and BuzzFeed with the help of the latest AI technology, deepfakes can be rather convincing in posing as famous figures.
Such videos make us wonder: what happens if someone releases a deepfake of the US president declaring war on North Korea during times of political unrest? What if a celebrity publicly admits to committing a crime? Despite the novelty of this technology and the futuristic sound of these questions, deepfakes have already managed to shake the world on five different occasions.
Vladimir Zelensky orders Ukrainian troops to surrender
Bot farms and digital dissemination of propaganda seem no longer fit for purpose when it comes to gathering public support for a war.
Ukrainian officials have been dismantling Russian bot farms and received support from independent hacktivist groups, such as Anonymous, on their cyber front. Yet, threat actors are getting increasingly creative.
On March 2, the Ukraine government’s Center for Strategic Communication issued a warning that Russian cyber forces might opt for deepfakes as the next step in their disinformation campaign. Shortly after, a video of Vladimir Zelensky ordering Ukrainian troops to lay down their weapons and surrender appeared on Youtube, Twitter, Telegram, and Facebook.
According to a post from TV channel Ukraine 24, its scrolling chyron and website Today were also hacked. Threat actors inserted a message from Zelensky with surrender calls there, as well.
The fake was quickly debunked, with Zelensky posting a video on his Facebook account calling the previous message “a childish provocation.” Youtube, Twitter, and Facebook spokespersons announced that they’d be tracking and removing any signs of the deepfake video from their platforms.
This was the first – although an unsuccessful – illustration of how deepfakes can be used during an armed conflict. While Ukraine and its leader were well-positioned to swiftly respond to the incident and had the authority to do so in a convincing manner, other government officials may not manage the issue as well.
The problem with deepfakes gets even more complicated since, ultimately, its advancement and detection is a game of cat and mouse. Preparing the appropriate defense strategy often requires predicting what the next generation of deepfakes will look like, which makes the process even more difficult.
Gabon’s president video sparks a military coup
The image above is an example of the power of deepfakes, which goes far beyond using technology to make famous people do or say anything you want. Even the possibility of their existence can create enough controversy to change political regimes.
What you’ll see in the video is Gabon’s president Ali Bongo giving a New Year’s speech. Prior to this, there were many rumors about Bongo’s poor health and even death, with the public anticipating the president’s New Year’s address to ease their doubts.
In his first-ever appearance since the speculations started, Bongo looks rather strange. What some called a post-stroke appearance, others called a deepfake. Together with rumors about Bongo’s condition, the video provoked a military coup in Gabon, which was eventually thwarted.
Most likely, however, the video was not a deepfake. Two independent teams have analyzed the footage and found little to no chance of it being a fake. Yet, it still serves as evidence of the opposition that Bongo is dead.
A detained official confesses to offering bribes to a Burmese politician
A former chief minister of the Yangon region, Phyo Min Thein, confirmed on a television network owned by the Myanmar military that he offered bribes to former State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi.
Many pundits have since stepped forward to denounce the video, claiming that Phyo Min did not act like himself, with some tests showing an 80% probability of the video being a deepfake.
Other experts, in turn, believe that the reason for Phyo Min Thein acting this way was stress and having to read from cards. However, the recording is of such low quality that it is hard to confidently reach conclusions.
The video allowed the military to accuse the former chief minister of corruption. Aung San Suu Kyi, in turn, will spend the rest of her life behind bars if found guilty on this and other occasions.
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