Trust No One: Inside the World of Deepfakes by Michael Grothaus review – the super weapon of disinformation | Society books

On the night of Thursday, September 3, 1998, a middle-aged college professor with a history of heart attacks passed out while driving his car on a busy US highway. The car drifted across the lanes and into the rush of oncoming traffic. The collision was so powerful that it threw the professor’s car engine into the front seats. Miraculously, he survived and no one else was seriously injured. He recovered from a broken ankle and wrist and was discharged from hospital. A month later he was back there with pain in his leg – a clot that may or may not have been triggered by the accident. Then his body swelled to twice its size with liquid, so it looked like a balloon that you could poke with a needle and burst. His wife and young children saw his miraculous survival turn into a sudden worsening of his underlying heart condition. In April 1999, he was dead.

Just over two decades later, his son, Michael Grothaus, sat at his computer watching a video of his father, healthy and wearing a yellow t-shirt, playing with a smartphone invented several years after his death. He was enjoying himself, recording the sunny park around him. Then he turned to the screen and smiled sweetly at his son behind his unmistakable bushy eyebrows.

Grothaus had redeemed his father back to life as a “deepfake”. It only costs a few hundred dollars. There are entire communities of anonymous deepfakers that you can easily contact in the wetter layers of the internet. Usually they specialize in creating commissioned porn: let’s say you want a video of yourself having sex with Scarlett Johansson or the girl next door. All you have to do is provide a video clip and they do the rest. To create the video of his father in the park, Grothaus sent over 60 seconds of VHS footage from the mid-1990s. “Brad” then broke it down into 1,800 images of his father’s face and played those images in a program called DeepFaceLab, which grafted them onto a video of another man.

His father’s digital resurrection aroused mixed feelings in Grothaus. He watched the video over and over – relishing the reunion. Then he deleted it – horrified by the rift he had made in reality, and the consequences it had for our sense of truth and trust.

This shared reaction runs through Grothaus’ book on deepfakes. On the one hand, they offer the prospect of overcoming death, of envisaging utopia, of realizing sexual desire. On the other, they bring the fear of total chaos. Even a short fake video of, say, the CEO of a major corporation quitting, could panic the markets just long enough to allow the people who created it to wreak havoc. Deepfakes of candidates saying something untoward in the final moments of a close election could change the fate of geopolitics.

But while such scenarios are dizzying in their destructive potential, they are, for the most part, still theoretical. The real financial scam described by Grothaus involves fraudsters who used a CEO voice recording call his accountant and ask him to wire them $243.00. Inconvenient – ​​but also possible only thanks to a fairly gullible interlocutor. The political case study he describes is that of an amateur editing of a video that made it look like Hollywood star Dwayne Johnson was humiliating Hillary Clinton ahead of the 2016 election. The video went viral in Magaland, but not because its authenticity was particularly compelling. It just matched people’s existing biases.

That’s the problem with “misinformation”: it’s not really meant to change people’s minds. It’s about giving them what they want to consume anyway. The quality of the deception is not necessarily the crucial factor. Will deepfakes change that? Will their mere existence destroy any vestige of trust in a shared reality? Potentially. But one thing we do know is that the discourse that has developed around this issue, rather than being something radically new, is part of a much older dynamic.

In a past life, I made documentaries for television. I always wondered why anyone agreed to participate. Most were ordinary people with little interest in fame. Slowly I realized there was something about the filming process that appealed to them. The camera seemed to promise that their experiences had meaning, and ultimately offered some sort of immortality. That said, every time our contributors saw the movies they were in, they hated them. The way we put them together in our scenarios made them feel less powerful, more vulnerable. Instead of immortality, we brought the opposite: a total loss of self-control.

Our relationship to visual representations of ourselves always follows this axis of narcissism and dread: both promising a defeat of death, but arousing this desire only to disappoint it, overwhelmingly reinforcing its inevitability. Our fascination with deepfakes strikes me as the latest iteration of this emotional roller coaster, and it’s one Grothaus captures very well.

Trust No One: Inside the World of Deepfakes is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£18.99). To support the Guardian and the Observer, buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.


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