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LISTEN: What are ‘deepfakes,’ and what is Brooklyn doing to fight them?

July 11, 2019 By Scott Enman, Paul Frangipane, Lawrence Madsen
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This type of manipulation, known as “deepfakes,” is one of the newest ways people are spreading misinformation today. Creators alter videos by swapping out faces and/or changing voices, sometimes creating entirely new messages.

Deepfakes take one person’s face and represent the facial expressions of that person, while generating the face of a different person with exactly the same facial expression, according to Professor Siwei Lyu of the University of Albany, who has worked in media forensics for more than 20 years.

Lyu and his team have made notable progress in exposing deepfakes, but as creators of the fakes evolve, their research has had to adapt as well. 

“It’s a cat and mouse game,” Lyu told Brooklyn This Week. “We achieved some promising success, but I think there is a lot more to be done here.” 

In Brooklyn, NYC Media Lab hosted a Fake News Horror Show last year at NYU Tandon. Justin Hendrix, the group’s executive director, thinks deepfakes could potentially play a significant role in the next presidential election. 

“The 2020 election will sort of be the olympics of disinformation,” he said. “You’ll see a lot of actors involved, so foreign state actors, as well as disinformation artists who are very much domestic.” 

Hendrix believes we will be able to expose deepfakes, but sometimes, detecting a deepfake does not make a substantial difference. 

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“Because of the pace at which these artifacts can travel, sometimes the damage is done well before a journalist gets the opportunity to say, ‘wait a minute, fact-check here, that’s an altered piece of content or that is not a true statement of fact,’” Hendrix said.

U.S. Rep. Yvette Clarke has been at the forefront of attempts to combat this disturbing trend. She introduced legislation in June called the DEEPFAKES Accountability Act that would require creators of deepfakes to distinguish them from real media with a watermark. It would also in certain cases include punishment for people who continue to publish fake content with criminal intent.

“There should be a watermark,” Clarke said. “it can be an audio, it can be a visual – but some sort of indicator to those who would receive these images that it has been altered.” 

She, like Hendrix, has the 2020 election on her mind. “There’s no one,” she said, “even locally elected officials, who are immune from this type of activity.” 

  • Interview with Siwei Lyu at 1:44
  • Interview with Justin Hendrix at 4:48
  • Interview with Yvette Clarke at 9:24

Brooklyn this Week‘s host Lawrence Madsen is a native New Yorker. He graduated from Columbia University with a B.A. in History, and volunteers with the disaster relief group Team Rubicon. 

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