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Do deepfakes have the power to rewrite history?

Do deepfakes have the power to rewrite history?
Copyright HALSEY BURGUND via YouTube
Copyright HALSEY BURGUND via YouTube
By Helena SkinnerSeana Davis
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A new deepfake art installation reimagines the story of the moon landings, revealing threats to both democracy and history,


It has been 50 years since man set foot on the moon - a moment of triumph, technology and staggering engineering. But what if things hadn't gone to plan?

At the time of the landing, then US president Richard Nixon had prepared a statement to read in case things went wrong, and astronauts Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin were left stranded on the lunar surface.

Decades later, a new art installation has used the latest deepfake technology to reimagine the story of the moon landing.

The undelivered speech, written by presidential speechwriter William Safire, was stored in the National Archives and finally made public in 1999 during the 30th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing.

“In Event of Moon Disaster’’, which opened Friday at the International Documentary Festival (IDFA) in Amsterdam, was produced at the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality and directed by Francesca Panetta, the centre’s creative director, and Halsey Burgund, an MIT research affiliate.

“We didn’t want to do anything that was gimmicky, comedy, or current politics, we wanted to broaden people’s perception of how deepfakes could be used,'' Panetta told Euronews.

“We took one of the seminal historic events... In some ways, yes, it is fiction, but it’s also something that really could have happened.”

Collaborating with Ukrainian company Respeecher, the team used a voice actor to mimic the voice of Richard Nixon, and employed Israeli company Canny AI’s video dialogue replacement technology to manipulate Nixon’s lips and face.

"A deepfake is a way of essentially doing a face swap, making someone look like they say something they didn’t,’’ Sam Gregory, an expert on deepfakes and Program Director of non-profit Witness, which promotes the use of video to defend human rights, told Euronews.

Realistically emulating speech and mannerisms, deepfakes have the power to misinform by distorting and eroding truth. The most commonly circulated deepfakes are politically motivated, raising concerns about how they could influence election campaigns.

Earlier this month, think tank Future Advocacy released deepfakes of the two leading UK election candidates respectively backing each other.

Whilst they aimed to inform the public on the dangers of deepfakes, some social media users criticised the videos, saying they were irresponsible, and undermined the initial objective.

“We absolutely don’t want to be adding to misinformation," Panetta says, speaking of the art installation. "We spoke to a lot of experts at Harvard, MIT, USC, about various ways of combating deepfake technologies”.

“Some of them are confrontational, algorithmic detection, but also there’s civic responsibility of having greater awareness of this as an issue. We can’t just rely on computers to solve the problem. It needs to be law, it needs to be regulation, it needs to be computers, and it also needs to be media awareness.”

“This project comes under media awareness - we’ve tried to do it creatively and also really carefully.”

“That’s why we’ve gone to such lengths both to put it in an artistic installation and not just stick it on YouTube, but also to provide contextual information as well.”

“In Event of Moon Disaster” is installed in a 1960s-era living room, audiences are invited to sit on vintage furniture, surrounded by three screens, including a vintage television set.

It is hoped the project will show the dangers of deepfakes - “there are real dangers in terms of the threat to democracy, and what can retrospectively be rewritten about history, we are looking forwards but also looking backwards”. 

Francesca Panetta Creative Director of the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality gives Euronews a tour of “In Event of Moon Disaster"
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