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Deepfakes Perpetuating Disinformation in America

By Ruhi Kumar

In the report Deepfake, Cheapfake: The Internet’s Next Earthquake? DeepTrust Alliance describes the ‘portending serious consequences’ deepfakes have for society by highlighting the social, political and emotional toll deepfakes place on individuals, corporations and governments. As the issue of deepfakes permeates many aspects of society, legislators and policymakers have long struggled to come up with appropriate solutions and safeguards. Id.

Given the vast scope of this issue, it is pertinent that stakeholders adopt a collaborative and holistic solution be adopted to curb the use of deepfakes, only then will the deepfake misinformation be addressed in a meaningful way. To ensure long-term success in curbing deepfake misinformation a combination of technological tools and processes, legislative policy and consumer education campaigns should be adopted.

Deepfakes are a “potential new frontier of disinformation warfare” and misinformation that requires prompt policy action. Tom Dobber & Nadia Metoui, Do (Microtargeted) Deepfakes Have Real Effects on Political Attitudes?, 26 The Int’l J. of Press/Pol. 71 (2020).  This has been particularly evident in political elections, since to an untrained eye, a deepfake may be difficult to distinguish from a legitimate video. For instance, in the 2020 Indian elections, the Delhi BJP partnered with a political communications firm to create campaigns utilizing deepfakes to sway a large Haryanvi-speaking migrant worker population in Delhi from voting for the rival political party. These deepfakes were distributed across 5,800 WhatsApp groups in Delhi and reached approximately 15 million people. Id. Circumstances like this and many others prompt questions about the “legitimacy of democratic elections, the quality of public debate and the power of citizens”. Dobber & Metoui.

As such, in order to remedy the potential corrosive impact deepfakes could have on an already fragile political landscape governments should adopt legislation that aims to curb potential misinformation and ensure the safety of their citizens. Several states in the United States such as California and Texas have passed laws that criminalize the publishing and distributing of a deepfake videos that intend to influence the outcome of an election. While the enactment of these laws is a step in the right direction, it does little to create long term change given the vast and cross boarder nature of online platforms. Even with this newly enacted state legislation, victims continue to encounter hurdles in identifying the exact location of the deepfake creator.

Additionally, in many cases the creator of the deepfake may be located outside of the state’s jurisdiction making the legislation inapplicable, leaving consumers susceptible to misinformation and victims lacking adequate redress. In order to tackle this issue, legislators should adopt a federal approach which would allow for a more cohesive handling of deepfake cases and facilitate more impactful remedies for victims.

Secondly, given the fact that online platforms are often a vehicle for deepfakes, social media platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, have an instrumental role to play in curbing the spread of disinformation. Social media companies should band together and develop streamlined processes to verify user content. While some may argue that this would curtail freedom of speech, it is common practice for social media platforms to have code of conducts in place for harassment and abuse, hence it could be argued that deepfakes facilitate a culture of abuse which must be curtailed by the platform.

Additionally, online platforms should adopt technological processes such as utilizing watermarks, content ID or using Artificial Intelligence to scan and identify harmful content. Id. at 22. Given the immense power and resources many of these tech companies have, they are in a unique position to offer greater transparency and protection to users. Although social media companies do have some consumer protections in place, the discrepancy between platforms and lack of robust processes still allow deepfake misinformation to thrive. For instance, as of February 2020, Twitter limited users from sharing deepfakes that were likely to cause harm and started labelling tweets with manipulated content using a unique labeling feature. These labels classify content based on if the media is synthetic or manipulated, is shared deceptively or if the media is likely to impact public safety or cause serious harm.

Given the relative ease in which consumers can share content from one social media platform for another it would be beneficial for platforms to adopt a universal, cohesive process for labeling user content this would allow for a more streamlined and efficient process for deepfakes to be identified and eliminated from the platforms, creating a safer and more enhanced user experience.

Lastly, improving media literacy across the board is essential to helping individuals identify and distinguish deepfakes from genuine sources. Consumer education campaigns should be strengthened and made a priority for educational institutions. Practical media knowledge can enable all users to think critically about the content they encounter and engage with online and will have more far-reaching impacts on individuals.

Overall, it is crucial that a combination of regulatory and legislative efforts, technological processes, and educational initiatives are employed to meaningfully address the issue of deepfakes in society.

Lead Author

Ruhi Kumar
Ruhi Kumar received her Bachelor of Laws from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and is currently an LL.M student in Georgetown’s Tech, Law and Policy program.
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