As deep fakes and other manipulated media become more sophisticated and cheaper to produce, people outside the world of tech are experimenting with them. For some creators, they can be powerful tools for expression. But they can also be used to influence people and sway opinions. Does the mere fact of calling something “art” give people creative license to toy with reality? How do we prepare and protect ourselves, our institutions and our democracies when seeing is no longer believing?
Panelists: Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former president, Estonia; Barnaby Francis (Bill Posters), artist, researcher, author and facilitator; and Ashley Tolbert, senior security engineer, Netflix. Moderator: Farah Nayeri, a culture reporter for The New York Times.
MS. NAYERI I think deep fakes first came to the general public’s attention in 2017 when there were a huge number of videos of celebrities and actors engaging in pornographic acts, which they actually never did in real life, going viral. And so this whole conversation, this whole debate, started getting inflamed right around that time. And nowadays, from what I understand, just about anybody can create a deep fake.
Barnaby, let me turn to you. I know that your artist name is Bill Posters. I wanted to get you to talk about the concept of deep fakes. Because for you, it’s a way of making art, it’s an art form, and I understand that art is about artifice and art is about representing people in a kind of make-believe way. But do you understand the democratic implications or the political implications of the art that you make?
MR. FRANCIS So I created a series of artworks called “Big Data Public Faces” with a collaborator, Daniel Howe. They included a fake video of Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and various celebrities. The artworks were picked up, went viral and created a furor around the issues that our artwork is connected with, right? Which is about disinformation and misinformation and the way that truth is distributed online, or how our perceptions can be altered by various forms of technologies that are using new media like this. We use the deep fake as a form of that.
MS. NAYERI But then, you can get someone who watches a snippet of your Zuckerberg video in which he’s saying some very ominous things and really believe that Mark said that, run with it and run it on other platforms.
MR. FRANCIS Yeah, of course it’s possible, absolutely.
MS. NAYERI That you’re making art, and art in the artistic context is fine, but then when taken out of the artistic context there are all kinds of dangers.