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These deepfake videos of Putin and Kim have gone viral

October 2, 2020, 6:00 PM UTC

Russian President Vladimir Putin has a message for America. “America, you blame me for interfering with your democracy. But I don’t have to. You are doing it to yourselves,” the dictator intones in thickly-accented English in a video released on YouTube earlier this week.

In another video, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un addresses Americans from behind a heavy wooden desk. “The people are divided. Your voting districts are manipulated. Voting locations are closing so millions can’t vote,” he says.

Neither video is authentic. Both were created for RepresentUS, a nonprofit anti-corruption and good governance group, by an advertising agency using “deepfake” technology. The videos, part of a public service campaign called “Dictators,” carry the tagline, “This footage isn’t real, but the threat to democracy is.”

Deepfakes are realistic-looking video forgeries created using a form of artificial intelligence. Most involve grafting one person’s head onto another person’s body, but a similar method can be used to create a completely invented face. Since first appearing in 2017, most deepfakes have involved putting the heads of celebrities onto the bodies of pornographic actors, but many experts have raised concerns that the technology could be used in political disinformation campaigns.

In this case, RepresentUS has sought to play upon that idea, but to use the technology to raise awareness about what it sees as more pressing threats to American democracy from policies that it sees as disenfranchising voters, such as policies designed to make it more difficult to register and cast a ballot.

“We believe the U.S. government should be representing all Americans,” Joshua Lynn, RepresentUS’s co-founder and president, said. “Every American needs to be able to vote safely and securely.”

Lynn said that RepresentUS is a non-partisan organization and has both Democrats and Republicans among its supporters and advisors, although he acknowledges that in the current presidential election, President Donald Trump’s attacks on mail-in voting and his efforts to encourage state and county officials to close physical polling places, particularly in areas expected to vote heavily in favor of Democrats, are anathema to the group’s views. “I see what is happening right now as the ultimate expression of this degradation of the system as it was designed,” he said.

RepresentUS asked Mischief @ No Fixed Address, a New York-based advertising agency, to create the public service campaign.

Kevin Mulroy, the agency’s executive creative director, said the challenge was to find a way grab people’s attention and make them care about democracy falling apart without drifting into partisan debate. The team hit upon the idea of using the perspective of foreign dictators rooting for U.S. democracy to collapse, he said. At first, they considered hiring actors to play fictional dictators but decided using images of real foreign leaders who have an interest in seeing the U.S. stumble would be more effective.

“That’s when we started thinking about deepfakes,” Mulroy said. “The point of the deepfake is to get this message through in such a noisy area.”

Lynn said he liked the idea because it allowed RepresentUS to showcase the threat from both domestic political developments and from this emerging new technology.

Creating the realistic deepfakes was not an easy process, Bianca Guimaraes, another Mischief executive creative director who worked on the campaign, said. The firm cast actors with similar body types to the two dictators to produce footage that could be used to train the deepfake algorithm. It also had to find enough video footage of the two foreign leaders to train an effective deepfake. This proved harder for the Kim video because relatively little video footage of the elusive North Korean dictator exists, Guimaraes said. Mischief also hired native Russian and Korean speakers to voice the two dictator’s lines in the videos, adding an additional touch of realism.

And while the deepfake software did much of the work of creating a believable melding of the real dictator’s faces with the mouth movements and bodies of the hired actors, finishing touches needed to make the videos seem more realistic were applied using more traditional computer-assisted video-editing techniques, Guimaraes said.

She said she came away from the process somewhat reassured that creating completely believable fake videos was still more difficult than some technologists and national security experts have suggested.

The two deepfake videos have been a hit on social media, with celebrities, including comedian Amy Schumer, musical artist Sia, and director Adam McKay, helping to promote RepresentUS’s #savethevote campaign on social media. RepresentUS’s website recorded its two highest days of traffic ever after the videos debuted.

The videos were supposed to have been broadcast on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC in the Washington, D.C., area immediately after Tuesday’s presidential debate, but all three networks refused to run the ads at the last minute, pulling them without any explanation. “We have asked for repeatedly for an explanation but they haven’t provided one,” Lynn said.

Facebook has said previously it will ban any videos created using deepfake technology, regardless of their content.

Lynn acknowledges that there’s something unsettling about watching almost-perfect-but-not-quite digital avatars of Putin and Kim celebrating the growing failures of America’s political system—even if people know the videos aren’t real.

“If it makes people a little bit uncomfortable, that’s okay,” Lynn said. “People should be a little bit uncomfortable about what is happening in America right now regardless of political party.”