Deepfake Loves Murky Times

The world was getting ready to face 2020 with an onslaught of deepfake attacks; instead, it is at a loss in the face of the COVID-19 coronavirus onslaught. Most of us would probably prefer deepfake to COVID-19. Alas, the situation that has spiraled into a “pandemic” gave nobody a choice. Don’t lose sight of deepfake while battling the threat of coronavirus on our health and lives. Remember that deepfake loves murky times. Not only does it concoct chaos, but it also captivates people’s minds more easily in an environment of chaos, even when it is not of its own making.

As is the case with world media, social media is also inundated with information and images and reflections from all corners of the world about the COVID-19 pandemic. When the virus first appeared in Wuhan in China, the images of people lying in the streets stuck in our minds. How could we forget the specter of isolation when sick people were confined to their homes, their doors and windows nailed shut with planks of wood? How can we forget empty store shelves and healthcare workers in special protective equipment reminiscent of science-fiction movies and the allegations that people infected with the virus were being shot and buried in mass graves in some countries under totalitarian regimes? On top of all of this, there is an abundance of fake news about how garlic or vinegar is effective in treating the virus. This being the case, entrenched media outlets, like the BBC and CNN, are hoping to capitalize on the situation as trusted news sources. As things go, people are still resorting to the mainstream media to guide them through these dire times. “Traffic to the BBC News website is surging to extraordinary levels,” described a BBC article published last month. “Over the past month, between February 12 and March 11, there have been over 575 million page-views globally to stories about coronavirus. People want trusted information.”

We need to be more vigilant as we are still to wake up from the nightmare

Undoubtedly, it will not be easy for the world to survive the trauma long years after the global outbreak has been contained. But it is too early to think about that yet. As of the second half of March, we are still in the midst of this global nightmare that is etched on our minds as coronavirus or COVID-19. And, it’s uncertain when we might wake up from it. Thus, we have to be more vigilant than ever. The times are amply dubious in every place.

Twitter says that it will remove content that promotes unverified claims and misinformation about the coronavirus: “We will enforce this in close coordination with trusted partners, including public health authorities and governments, and continue to use and consult with information from those sources when reviewing content.” (Twitter Blog, March 18)

Many countries around the world are enduring city-wide and even country-wide quarantines, setting all the conditions required for an escalation of unrest and tension. Prosperous citizens from Europe, the USA, and the Far East who used to travel all over the world have had their world turned upside down in just a few weeks. Imagine the pressure that must have fallen on these people who once could easily travel to anywhere in the world, thanks to the passports they hold and financial means they enjoy, but who now have to obtain permission from the police just to step out of their homes to buy bread or medicine. As patience wears thin and strife is imminent, how conceivable is it to leave social order so vulnerable?

What kind of an effect would deepfake videos of COVID-19 that show dire conditions, worse than they are, have on the people who are trapped in their homes and hooked on online communication? How would the people react to videos that intensify the perception that deaths cannot be averted, that the disease and the sick cannot be brought under control, or that medicine or food shortages are imminent? Who, with what kind of power, could prevent this likely state of panic? How could cities—once considered a holiday paradise or a center of business, entertainment, or fashion—salvage their economies and reputations in the aftermath of fake images that purport conditions more severe than they really are?

Panic and violence fill the void left by confidence

How would the public ever again have faith in the ruling politicians, heads of international organizations and institutions, or civil society and opinion leaders once they appear to say inappropriate things in fabricated images in these difficult times? Once the news spread that nobody could be trusted, would not citizens attempt to take care of their own through force and violence as in primitive ages? Have not Hollywood productions conditioned all cultures for such a doomsday scenario between the lines of science-fiction scripts for decades?

We are going through uncertain times in the early- or interim-period of the pandemic with talks of a vaccine or treatment probably still months away. Even now, claims that COVID-19 is a biological weapon or a global imperialist experiment abound. It won’t be long before states and nations undertake to give an account of the pandemic and evaluate its course, the number of cases and deaths per country, how it spreads. Then blame each other in despair. The process of professed international collaboration—to prevent a global catastrophe—may evolve into a darker era of budding enmities and reckoning. Under the circumstances, a handful of deepfake videos would be more than enough to do the trick.

Would companies and brands also get infected with the virus?

The danger is not limited only to public order. Companies and brands will also be put to what may be their greatest social and economic test during the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is the outlook at present:

Countries with thousands of patients and casualties have initiated a state of emergency and lawful quarantine measures. In these countries, a curfew is in effect and getting outside requires government-prescribed permissions. In many other countries with fewer patients and casualties, the government warns citizens “to not go out unless necessary.” Those with a weak immune system, particularly the elderly and children, are at risk. People are shopping only for essential items. Many companies are implementing “indefinite leave” or “home-office” models. Travel has been put on hold. Tourism facilities, places of entertainment, cafes, restaurants, shopping malls and stores are either deserted or closed. How long can companies and brands financially afford a life at standstill? How would consumers, customers, and employers react if the measures taken against the pandemic—even those with good intentions—were made to look ill-intentioned? Wouldn’t all companies and their brands become mo re vulnerable than before to deepfake assaults in the face of the measures called for during extraordinary circumstances, ranging from health and hygiene conditions, product inventories and pricing policies to employee practices, and investment and recruitment decisions? When executives are preoccupied with protecting their own health and lives, and when some of them have already been infected, who is going safeguard companies against deepfake attacks that may very well ruin their economic power and brand value with disinformation? It appears that in the post-pandemic period, the business world will be shaken to the ground, and the conditions of competition and balances will change drastically.

We need to fight against disinformation to evade the dark past

We all need to accept that we will be dragged into an even darker past than COVID-19 if we fall into a state of public panic and collective insanity that would stamp out common sense and prudence. No virus or disease could bring about a more tragic cost than the damage that people can do to each other. Therefore, healthcare armies, as well as the states and nations fighting the virus, are also faced with the task of fending off manipulation and disinformation attempts that would exploit the pandemic. We should remember that the history of humankind is teeming with diabolical and dirty war schemes.