A potential new marketing strategy for political campaigns: Deepfake videos

The video shows Donald Trump speaking from a podium. With his classic speaking habits — “People love me because I'm a fair person” —  he’s urging Belgium to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, which the United States did last summer.

But the video isn’t real — you can tell by Trump’s smudged lips and teeth. A Belgian social-democratic party created and published it on Twitter and Facebook to promote a petition for the government to do more about climate change.

Jan Cornillie, the political director of sp.a, told Poynter that the growing accessibility of “deepfake” video technology was one reason the party decided to use it.

That and the fact that they thought it’d do well on social media.

“What we wanted to do was to use a bad guy to promote a good cause,” he said. “We thought, ‘OK, Trump is known for his withdrawal of the climate change agreement, but also he’s known for discussions on fake news.’ Putting the two together, we thought it would be interesting to sort of get attention for the public debates ... and for the first time we used this deepfake technique.”

Deepfakes are a relatively new type of manipulated video that are essentially created by extracting a large number of frames from one video and superimposing them on another. Named after a Reddit user who is credited with coming up with the technique, the goal is to create videos that swap faces and make it look like people did or said things they didn’t. Existing examples are mostly porn on fringe websites like 4chan, and several major platforms have already banned them.

At the same time, technology for creating deepfakes has developed rapidly over the past year. Adobe is testing software that lets users edit speech as easily as text, while a team at the Technical University of Munich has dedicated itself to creating deepfake detection and creation software.

And so far, sp.a’s video has worked in attracting attention. The deepfake had more than 100,000 cumulative views on Facebook and Twitter as of publication, and Cornillie said the party saw a traffic increase to its online petition.

On the technical side, Conner Rousseau, head of social media at sp.a, told Poynter in a message that he created the deepfake in only a few hours using Adobe’s After Effects software — a departure from past attempts, which have predominantly used a tool called FakeApp. While the party thought it was a good idea to bring attention to climate change, there was an internal discussion over whether or not it was ethical.

“You see it’s not a perfect deepfake video — you see it’s fake. We also say it at the end that it’s fake,” Cornillie said. “Our goal was not to create a sort of deepfake video — it had to be seen that it was fake.”

However, several top commenters on both Facebook and Twitter didn’t seem to understand the video was fake. The fabricated Trump says it is near the end, but the volume dips and it’s hard to hear. In response, sp.a commented back to several users to set the record straight.

While it was the first political party to create a deepfake, sp.a probably won’t be the last. Dan Jackson, an associate professor of media and communication at Bournemouth University, told Poynter in an email that he expects the problem to get more attention over the next few years for its blurring of real and fake campaign communication.

“There is certainly a long history of visual political communication, which has evolved in line with the platforms and tools available to campaigners,” he said. “This use of deepfake should be seen in the context of this evolution. Having said that, deepfake has unique features.”

Politicians are definitely not immune to having manipulated content used against them. During his 2001 campaign, former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi published posters with the phrase “a concrete commitment.” They were quickly photoshopped in innumerable online parodies.

And politicians like Trump are prime for memeing.

“That video fits well into a memetic genre (that's pre-internet but now amplified by meme-age) called Churchillian Drift,” said An Xiao Mina, director of product at the nonprofit technology company Meedan, in a message. “Because of his unpredictable speaking style and claims, Trump is a perfect candidate for what we might call Trumpian Drift — we should expect to see more outlandish/unexpected faked content about what he says than for other candidates.”

“I suspect Trump will be our new (Mark) Twain when it comes to faked content — with attention economy dynamics, we should expect outlandish quotes/claims to see more success with deepfakes.”

And it’s not just deepfakes — campaigns around the world are increasingly employing misinformation strategies to get their message out. During her presidential campaign in France last year, Marine Le Pen’s team fabricated a video of a man claiming to be a TV reporter. In Mexico, a marketing campaign said it launched a fake news site on behalf of one of the political parties.

In the future, at least part of the conversation around campaigns using misinformation will have something to do with regulation. Cornillie said sp.a’s video is legal because the party publicly declared it was fake, but Jackson said he foresees regulators getting involved with similar videos soon.

“In the context of disinformation/misinformation and concerns about fake news, I wouldn’t be surprised if campaign regulators at some point become interested in this type of campaigning as it blurs the lines between what is fake and what is real,” he said.

So will sp.a use another deepfake in the future? Cornillie said the party didn’t have plans to, but it’s also not ruling the strategy out.

“I can’t see how a deepfake video would (always) be interesting to use. Here why it was interesting is because Trump was known for fake news and climate negotiations,” he said. “We wouldn’t always use that. The context has to be correct and meaningful.”

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