Deepfake’ is another new and powerful weapon in the arsenal that the merchants of lies have at their disposal.

MOISÉS NAÍM / The Country is

At the end of last year, pornographic videos began to circulate on the Internet whose main protagonists were some of the most famous actresses and singers of our time. Naturally, the videos became viral and were seen by millions of people around the world. A few days later it became known that Scarlett Johansson, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry and other renowned artists were not the real protagonists of these videos, but the victims of a new technology that, using artificial intelligence and other advanced digital instruments, allows to insert the facial image of any person in a video.

That was just the beginning. Soon Angela Merkel, Donald Trump and Mauricio Macri were also victims of what is known as deepfake or deep forgery. Barack Obama was used, without their consent, to exemplify the possible nefarious uses of this technology. We see Obama saying in a speech what the counterfeiter wanted him to say, and what the former president had never said. But the result is a very real video.

The manipulation of images is nothing new. Authoritarian governments have a long history of making disgraced leaders “disappear” from official photos. And since 1990 Photoshop allows the user to alter digital photographs.

But deepfake is different. And much more dangerous. Different because, since the fake videos of the actresses circulated until today, that technology has greatly improved. Body image and facial expression are hyper-realistic, and the imitation of a person’s voice and gestures are so accurate that it is impossible to discover that it is a forgery unless sophisticated digital verification programs are in place. And the danger of deepfake is that this technology is within anyone’s reach.

A despised and psychopathic ex-boyfriend can produce and anonymously disseminate through social networks a video that perfectly imitates the voice, gestures and face of the woman who left him and in which she appears doing or saying the most shameful barbarities. Images of police brutally beating an elderly woman participating in an anti-government protest can lead to violent clashes between protesters and police officers. The respected leader of a racial or religious group may incite his followers to attack members of another race or religion. Some students may produce a compromising video of a teacher they repudiate. Digital extortionists may threaten a company with releasing a video that will damage its reputation if the company does not pay for what they ask for.

The possible uses of deepfake in politics, economics, or international relations are as varied as they are sinister. Disclosure of a video showing a candidate for president of a country saying or doing reprehensible things shortly before the polls will become a more commonly used electoral ruse. Even if this candidate’s rival has not approved the use of this indecent trick, his most radical followers can produce the video and distribute it without asking anyone’s permission.

The potential of forged videos to muddy relations between countries and exacerbate international conflicts is also enormous.

And this is not hypothetical; it has already happened. Last year the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, appeared in a video praising and supporting Hamas, Hezbollah, the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. This provoked a furious reaction from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, which had already been having strong frictions with Qatar. They denounced the Emir’s speech as a support for terrorism and broke off diplomatic relations, closed the borders and imposed a blockade of air, sea and land. The reality, however, is that the Emir of Qatar never gave that speech; the video that escalated the conflict was false. What is very real is the boycott that is still going on.

The deepfake threat to social harmony, democracy and international security is obvious. The antidotes to this threat are much less so, although there are some proposals. All organizations that produce or distribute photographs or videos should be forced to use technological blocks that make their visual material unalterable. People must also have access to technologies that protect them from being victims of deepfakes. Laws must be adapted so that those who defame or harm others through the use of these technologies are held accountable. The use of anonymity on the web must be made more difficult. All this is necessary, but not enough. Much more will have to be done.

We have entered an era in which the ability to differentiate the truth from the lie, the facts from the falsehoods, has been eroding. And with it, confidence in institutions and democracy. Deepfake is another new and powerful weapon in the arsenal that the merchants of lies have at their disposal. They must be confronted.