A work about deepfakes, post-factual politics and the power of lies.
Installation composed by essay, plotter print, led string light and sound dissimulation of fire (audio, 7’31’’, loop)
Deepfakes have lately become an alarming issue within our already fragile democracies. This new technology enables the production of false video and audio impersonations of real people, via techniques of artificial intelligence such as neural networks and deep learning, with increasing quality and credibility. Fomenting fear and visions of a dystopian future where nothing can be trusted – not even our eyes and ears – this troubling technology presents a very tangible risk of exponentially amplifying the regime of post-factual politics that has been prevailing throughout recent times. As a ripe tool for propaganda and the dissemination of doubt, deepfakes threaten to be the final blow in the ongoing port-truth corrosion of the sense of reality.
Along with an array of substantial telephone scams using voice synthetization software, video deepfakes invaded the public sphere in 2018, when new accessible software was made available. This resulted in an avalanche of online parodies and satires, and a disturbing proliferation of revenge and celebrity porn (though this type morph porn was already widely being produced, long before deepfakes became credible). More recently the first convincing deepfake impersonations of influential politicians initiated an alarmist mediatic coverage of the risks behind this technology. Alongside came an intense academic, military and industry debate around how to deal with this unprecedented class of fake content. However, though the dangers of deepfakes for the shaping of public opinion are undeniable, the main concerns about this technology may be misleading.
On one side, the technology is not bad in itself. It only reflects and amplifies existing cultural issues that remain untackled. For example, the prevalent and profound devaluation of the female body is made evident by the timing of the mediatic attention to deepfakes. This mediatization only occurred when credible manipulations of political figures emerged, long after these manipulations had been proved to be a serious and harmful problem of digital abuse, inflicted predominantly on the female gender.
These tools, if carelessly applied, will amplify existing human tendencies. In the case of deepfakes, a significant obstacle will be the overcoming of our own confirmation bias, which continuously draws us towards information we already align with, whether fake or real. Thus, one of the great challenges with deepfakes will be the confrontation with our natural tendency to believe the lies we want to hear.
Another high-profile menace comes not from the deepfake content, but rather from the potential loss of credibility in genuine video and audio content, with wrongdoers using the claim of deepfakes to dispute legitimate proof of their crimes and misdeeds. This exploitation of skepticism, known as the Liar’s Dividend, allows for the denial of authentic evidence under the shadow of deepfakes, hindering accountability efforts. And since this effect only grows stronger with public awareness of deepfakes, alarmist reactions to this technology might further decay our trust levels in provable facts, creating opportunities for authoritarianism to grow.
In this scenario, reality becomes the word of whoever gathers the best position to enunciate a lie as a truth and a truth as a lie. Thus, the ability to tell a blatant lie openly and with impunity becomes a means of asserting power — a strategy already in use by some political leaders. Lying becomes a clear demonstration of authority, and the shamelessness, as well as the disregard for consistency itself, become an indicator of its influence. At this point, truth is reduced to a positional warfare between whoever has a better stance to own reality.
This reconfiguration of the status of truth and lies draws a parallel with the fable of Prometheus’ creation of Truth and Falsehood. In this Æsop fable, Falsehood, or Lie, is described as an exact replica of the perfectly conceived female figure of Truth, equal in everything but her missing feet. This conception of lying as an identical twin to Truth denounced only by its lack of foundation, presents the Lie as such an exempt copy of the truth that it becomes easily mistaken for it, much like the high-quality deepfakes we are starting to see. But if in Æsop’s fable the animated figure of Truth can walk assertively while her sister, the Lie, is forced to vacillate eternally in her stumps, today we could argue that the Lie’s lack of feet is exactly what allows it to fly and spread so quickly throughout our connected society, ominously hovering over everything.
January 2020, Herdámos as Margens, curated by José Maia and João Terras, Espaço Mira, Porto