Recently, California Governor Gavin Newsom was the first state leader to pass legislation against what some are coining “deep fakes”. This should concern us all. The decision came upon the heels of an embarrassing video of Newsom’s relative Nancy Pelosi seemingly slurring her way through a speech. The widely-shared video brought much consternation and blustering from the Democrat party and resulted in Newsom’s law passing fairly quickly afterwards. As it turned out, the video of Nancy Pelosi had just been slowed down, and this caused her to sound like she’d had a 5-martini lunch. Ironically, even sped up, as with most Pelosi videos, one is left with stuttering word salad, but that seems to be beside the point.
Regardless of whose feelings it hurt, we should be questioning the law, the reason it passed, and the very definition of ‘deep fake’. From news articles published on the subject, it appears to mean anything from pasting an ex-girlfriend’s face on a naked body in a porn video to basic use of Adobe After Effects. Indeed, the linked Guardian’s mea culpa at the end of an extensive article on ‘deep fakes’ apologizes for going into such lengthy explanations on the complex software it reported was required to create a deep fake, and instead admitted pretty much that, yeah, you can do this with After Effects. What they don’t tell you is that the average person would never be able to navigate their way around After Effects, so their claim that ‘anyone’ can do this is also fairly laughable.
Also running up to the passing of the law, President Obama was trotted out yet again to sell it to the public, with comedic actor Jordan Peele, in a fun, comical manner. I can’t imagine anyone actually bought that this was Obama speaking, or missed the creepy non-human appearance of the manipulated portion. As a propaganda campaign, I wouldn’t say it was successful; however, it was enough for people to shrug and say, ‘yeah, sure, video shouldn’t be manipulated’ without realizing that all video is manipulated, it’s called ‘editing’.
The law that Governor Newsom passed includes a section making it illegal to manipulate (edit) a video of a political candidate within 60 days of an election. This seems to be a conundrum, given that every single video that’s ever put on the internet is edited (manipulated) to some extent. The law doesn’t specify what manipulations (edits) qualify as criminal. This appears suspiciously like another extension of ‘thought crime’ or ‘intent’ of a video. A great example of how the term ‘deep fake’ is now being misused is in this article, which covers a video clip that was embarrassing to presidential candidate Joe Biden.
From the article, “But the anonymous Twitter user who posted a clip from the ABC News footage shared a shorter version of Biden’s remarks without any initial context about the topic the presidential candidate was discussing.” The admission that the video clip was not doctored but ‘taken out of context’ is not the same issue as a video being manipulated. While ‘deep fake’ seems to be as elusive and opaque term as ‘fake news’ – that is, a descriptor used as an accusation which has no real definition – we should be seeing yet more ramping up of censorship against video in the coming years.
“Voters have a right to know when video, audio, and images that they are being shown, to try to influence their vote in an upcoming election, have been manipulated and do not represent reality,” Berman said in a statement. “In the context of elections, the ability to attribute speech or conduct to a candidate that is false – that never happened – makes deepfake technology a powerful and dangerous new tool in the arsenal of those who want to wage misinformation campaigns to confuse voters.”– Courthouse News Service
The article also states “The new law allows for candidates who are the targets of such deepfakes to sue producers or distributors of the material. Free speech advocates and news organizations opposed the bill, stating that deepfakes are already covered under current defamation laws.” But the article also explains that taking an exerpt out of context in a video is NOT a ‘deep fake’. Confused yet?
But political cartoons, comics, comedians, TV shows, and other media have always parodied, misrepresented or exaggerated politicians and political leaders. This is what the little people do. It has always been thus. So why suddenly is video the only medium in which the deception is somehow more insidious? Is it because the average person’s perception of video is that it’s always truthful? This would lead to a much lengthier discussion about the utter manipulative practices of indoctrination our mainstream news outlets have indulged since the inception of television, so the irony is not lost here. But keep in mind, this does mean that if you were to say, cover a candidate’s speech in a public forum, and then edit out the boring parts where people are coughing or there is an interlude, that’s by definition a ‘deep fake’.
Most people don’t seem to realize that simply sharing a friend’s video can get them into trouble with the law. This should not be the case. We should strive for freedom of speech and the transparency of laws seeking to decrease it, no matter whose feelings it hurts.
Texas has passed an even harsher law, making it a misdemeanor to share manipulated video within 30 days of an election.