Deepfake Videos Newest Threat to Election Meddling, Lawmakers Say

Deepfake videos, or phony visual recordings manipulated to look credible, could be used to spread false information or influence U.S. elections, experts told the House Intelligence Committee in a hearing late last week.

In a frightening example of the potentially harmful impact of fake videos, a bogus recording distributed last month of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) purporting to show her drunkenly slurring her words drew millions of views and prompted a partisan political squabble.

While concerns among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle center on foreign intervention in U.S. politics, the altered Pelosi video was apparently homegrown and posted on a number of Facebook pages by a political adherent from the Bronx, New York, the Daily Beast reported. Whether the poster is the same person who edited the video isn’t clear. No matter, it was a big hit, underscoring the problem that technology can simultaneously normalize deepfake videos, create an unwarranted stir and challenge social media platforms to retain or expunge them.

The Pelosi episode aside, there's no underestimating the impact of altered video made by foreign hackers to influence U.S. elections. In testimony at the hearing, Clint Watts, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agent, warned lawmakers that Russia and China will likely develop “synthetic media capabilities” for use against the U.S. and other adversaries. (via The Hill) “China’s artificial intelligence capabilities rival the U.S., are powered by enormous data troves to include vast amounts of information stolen from the U.S., and the country has already shown a propensity to employ synthetic media in television broadcast journalism,” he said.

Government regulations to stanch phony videos is problematic, Committee chair Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said. He called deepfake videos a “nightmarish scenario” to legislate while urging social media companies, presumably Facebook and Twitter, to act ahead of the 2020 Presidential elections to contain bogus recordings, The Hill reported. “I don’t know if we can ever be completely prepared for this,” he said. “But there is a lot more that we can do to both identify our enemies’ plans and intentions, ferret out what they do as early as possible, expose it, establish a deterrent, and inform the public about what they need to look out for and do so in a way that they don’t simply disregard anything and everything they see.”

Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), a former undercover CIA officer and a cybersecurity advocate on Capitol Hill, said that research on deepfakes should be shared among law enforcement agencies and the private sector. Social media platforms need to find ways to identify those creating deepfakes and the State Department or Federal Bureau of Investigation should focus on prosecuting operatives of foreign countries, he said.

As for social media, Republicans worried about filtering content, specifically whether social media companies might unfairly scrub content favorable to conservatives. Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the ranking Republican on the Committee, asked “How do you put in filters to these tech oligarch companies...There are only a few of them ... that are not developed by partisan left-wing...Most of the time it is conservatives who get banned and not Democrats.”

There was no shortage of additional concerns aired by lawmakers at the hearing. Some warned that over-reach on filtering could unintentionally censor videos meant as parodies or satire. Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) told The Hill that there are “categories of harm” to both politicians and consumers that could be raised by deepfake videos, while describing the current regulations around social media companies as “the Wild West.” Social media platforms should look into creating “a standard of reasonable care” for their users, he said.

D. Howard Kass

D. Howard Kass is a contributing editor to MSSP Alert. He brings a career in journalism and market research to the role. He has served as CRN News Editor, Dataquest Channel Analyst, and West Coast Senior Contributing Editor at Channelnomics. As the CEO of The Viewpoint Group, he led groundbreaking market research.