Waking up to the dystopian world of deepfakes

Want to see Tom Cruise perform a magic trick, joke about ex-presidents, or tee-off?

Posted without any explanation on social media platform TikTok by @deeptomcruise the clips became instant viral videos, with over 10million views in the first week. Only, they weren’t Tom. These deepfakes were highly praised by forensics experts, and pose significant challenges not just for our world, but for gospel witness. Imagine watching ‘unseen footage’ of Billy Graham sharing doubts about Christ as the only way to the Father?

Twitter asks us: ‘What’s happening?’ Facebook prefers: ‘What’s on your mind?’ Instagram and TikTok shun text and do not bother with a question, with their + icons urging people to add visual content. Videos are compelling, believable in a way that a line of text can never be. For a ‘people of the book’, perhaps the undermining of videos could prove subversively useful if it increases trust in written materials as a result.

Going deeper

The Tom Cruise deepfakes are the work of a Belgian visual-effects specialist, receiving acclaim from forensics experts. Some are fun, like his Einstein’s coronavirus advice, whereas Channel 4’s Queen’s Speech was more divisive, with 200 complaints to Ofcom.

Be prepared to encounter far more authoritative and persuasive videos of renowned figures that are nothing more than actors wearing hi-tech masks, not a million miles away from those Cruise used at the turn of the millennium. I’m afraid it’s now Mission: Possible, Tom.

So how is it done? The two steps are simple if you have the right software. First, gather as much visual content of the subject from multiple angles. Secondly, give the software a couple of weeks, depending on processing power and volume of footage, to learn the person’s face and mannerisms through two Artificial Intelligence networks: one AI practices painting Rembrandt by numbers, so to speak, until the other cannot tell the artwork is a forgery.

Deepfakes will undoubtedly be used to challenge security, undermine democracy, and disrupt the church, leading eventually to changes to the law. The concept and practice of deepfakes is actually not that new but, on the evidence above, they will become undetectable – conjuring up Hollywood-esque dystopias.

Biblical duplicity?

The apostle Paul was not immune to accusation and the charge against him at Corinth was duplicity: presenting as bullish and forceful in written communication, but insipid when face-to-face (2 Cor. 10:1, 10). In a stunning offensive in chapters 10 to 13, Paul dismantles the rhetoric of those who had built reputations for themselves as ‘super-apostles’ by using the same devices against them with lashings of irony. He destroys the argument rooted in human comparison by elevating it to the divine; in God’s presence all of our pretences are exposed. We as Christians are not to base judgment on appearance (v.7) or fight with the weapons of the world (v.3). Rather, the echo of Isaiah’s servant of the Lord rings through, who ‘will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears’ but will act through righteousness, faithfulness and justice (Isa.11:3-5).

Would Paul turn out to be the fake that some claimed? On his return, Paul confirms that his actions will match his words, and there will be no room for doubt (2 Cor. 10:11).

Sorry, not sorry

A commentator noted that we ‘don’t have to be scared of deepfakes […] At least now you know it exists, and you know you shouldn’t believe what you see.’ Yet cynicism and suspicion do not map well against ‘life in all of its abundance’ (John 10:10). Perhaps the most powerful yearning through the Covid pandemic has been for a return to face-to-face interaction. It’s the messy space where relationships are tested, words followed through with action, and where we live out the ‘one-anothers’ of gospel community – a sphere that deepfakes cannot touch.

For theological colleges, the current tech trends should reinforce our intent to open the book, begin to apply our theology, and share ‘not just the gospel, but our lives as well’ as we live it out amongst students and staff (1 Thess. 2:8).

Andy du Feu

Andy is the Executive Director at Moorlands College. He lectures on a breadth of subjects on the BA, and teaches a specialist MA module in digital communication. www.moorlands.ac.uk