Deepfakes’ Threat to Democracy a Focus at SAG-AFTRA Panel

If Jordan Peele can forge a video of Obama mouthing nonsense, what’s to stop the Russians from doing likewise in 2020?
Maury Phillips/SAG-AFTRA
From left: NBC4 anchor Colleen Williams, U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, Alyssa Milano, SAG-AFTRA national executive director David White, Heidi Johanningmeier, University of Miami Law School professor Mary Anne Franks and U.C. Berkeley professor Hany Farid

Deepfakes — AI-powered forged videos of people saying things they never said or doing things they never did — are a threat to democracy at home and abroad, as well as a threat to actors’ livelihoods and broadcasters’ ability to do their jobs, a SAG-AFTRA panel that included the U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman, Rep. Adam Schiff, said Monday.

It’s an instance where the concerns of the union that represents performers and electronic journalists, among others, coincides with the public interest in combatting what the moderator and panelists — who also included a law professor, a forensic computer scientist, actors, a broadcaster and SAG-AFTRA national executive director David White — agreed could become a bigger threat to democracy than the allegedly Russian-engineered mass dump of Hilary Clinton’s emails in 2016.

“Deepfakes deeply impact the democratic process,” Schiff told The Hollywood Reporter, “because this technology can be used to create enormous confusion in an election,” pointing to the possibility of use by foreign state actors as well as domestic political parties as the 2020 contest gears up. “It’s easier to alter the voters than the vote count,” he added later.

“I grew up in an era where I was asked, ‘Did you hear it with your own ears? Did you see it with your own eyes?’” said actress Heidi Johanningmeier. “We’ll never be able to trust that [again].”

Many are familiar with Jordan Peele’s widely viewed 2018 deepfake Barack Obama video. That effort, which had some telltale giveaways, is already obsolete, warned the panelists, and newer forgeries would be harder to discern. “It’s an arm’s race,” said UC Berkeley computer science professor Hany Farid. “We are outgunned [and] always going to be playing catch up. Every three months, the landscape changes.”

“We live in an era where truth is being distorted,” noted actress and activist Alyssa Milano, “and this is another element where truth being distorted can be incredibly dangerous. The assault on truth is a threat to our democracy.”

Johanningmeier described a lower-tech version of victimization, in which the producer of a film in which she appeared used a body double to make it seem as though the actress had performed in a sex scene to which she had objected. The incident, which Johanningmeier found deeply hurtful, resulted in clips on the internet that purport to be of her even though they’re not. “Any one of us can have our image grabbed from us,” she said.

“This is a reckoning,” said University of Miami law professor Mary Anne Franks, who has been active in combatting revenge porn (the unauthorized posting of intimate images by disgruntled exes). “Women are the canaries in the coal mine.”

The boundary lines in motion picture and television production are likely to become even messier — and the issues for actors’ control of their likenesses even tougher — as the technology evolves, with one VFX expert last year predicting that the technology was just a year or two away from being pro-ready, while others see realistic digital people in the offing.

White, who called deepfakes a threat to privacy as well as democracy, emphasized the need to fight forged videos on multiple fronts, through collective action, technology, education (digital literacy, in Farid’s phrasing) and state and federal legislation. He also told THR that SAG-AFTRA was in dialogue about deepfakes with the international association of performers’ unions known as FIA.

“Our job as a union is to empower everyone to protect themselves,” SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris told THR.

Farid noted that the EU was ahead of the U.S. on the legislative front, which he attributed to the lack of a need to balance privacy laws with such strong free-speech protections as the First Amendment or Sec. 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which broadly immunizes ISPs and social media companies from liability for content on their platforms.

The message of the panel, introduced by Carteris and moderated by NBC4’s Colleen Williams, might best be summed up by the closing words of Peele’s faux-Obama: “Stay woke!”

For more on this subject, visit THR‘s labor page.