We had barely become accustomed to the idea of a pandemic before an onslaught of new terms took over our lives on the online world and social media. The World Health Organization (WHO) announced that it was fighting not only the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic but also the infodemic: “Trust reliable news sources, not social media content,” it warned. The global outbreak, or the pandemic as it is called, shook us to the core. We have become familiar with the notion of an infodemic, meaning “disinformation of global information and news” on social media. COVID-19 is the first social-media-borne infodemic. No other fictitious/false wave of information or news has reached such a global scale before. The efforts of the WHO, in collaboration with Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Google, to spread trustworthy information was not enough to dispel the infodemic blitz that was aimed at manipulating the pandemic. The issue revolves around various aspects. One example is that the xenophobic hatred a gainst Far Eastern and African people due to COVID-19 has quickly culminated in social and economic upheaval in the West.
Technology in the Pandemic Vernacular
Disinformation can be just as fatal as an infection—as was evident when 30 Turkmen citizens died around the same time in Istanbul when they drank absolute alcohol based on the false news that “it protects from the coronavirus.” The spread of false information and news with malicious intent drag people into the swamp of disinformation. There is an avalanche of absurd posts from people who believe everything they see or hear. Misinformation, albeit inadvertently, spreads at a viral speed, causing results as catastrophic as disinformation. A mutated and uncontrollable virus is causing death on a global scale, while havoc runs through the online world, brought on by a virally disseminated infodemic with all kinds of disinformation and misinformation. Two eminent UN organizations, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the United Nations Development Programme are trying to create awareness against phony information on COVID-19; however, their efforts fall short in the face of the threat.
The most destructive wave of global lies is deepfakes, which create, alter, or transform digital content to appear real by using AI technologies that run on artificial neural networks and deep learning. Deepfakes pose a number of threats, ranging from cyber fraud to manipulation of democracy to local and global stability, and they have evolved into a new version in the era of the infodemic. The first version of Deepfakes 1.0 was put to use for fun through face swap apps in 2017 and 2018. At first, porn-related synthetic videos were produced by swapping faces of famous women, followed by parody videos that mocked politicians and other well-known personalities.
The era of Deepfakes 2.0?
Having been on the scene since last year, Deepfakes 2.0 boasts of far more plausible and profound effects. The infodemic period appears likely to provide momentum in the new era when the vitality of truth will be under attack. The eradication of society’s common ground on authenticity spells disaster for the shared future as well. For centuries, manipulated information obtained through chicanery has been used for wicked purposes. Today, technology allows it to happen at an unprecedented speed and scale. With the advancement of technology, it is not too long before a teenager will be able to create and disseminate a high-quality deepfake video on a cellphone from the comfort of his couch. “We don’t know where this is going to end,” said Matthew Turek, the program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). “It may end up in an environment of zero trust.”
Heralded by Deepfakes 2.0, the new era is not confined to deepfake videos anymore. The advancement in voice cloning technologies has also created the onset of a deep voice. Deepfake and deep voice have assumed the form of a great threat, together and separately.
Infodemic Deepfakes Scenarios
Deepfakes have an immense influence on an infodemic. A video and/or sound recording that is manipulated to disseminate disinformation could cause harm greater than even the culprit can envisage, thanks to the wave of misinformation by the unhinged masses who share it without bothering to question its authenticity. The variety of infodemic deepfakes scenarios are limited only by one’s will and imagination, as well as technology.
As we have said in previous articles, when companies shifted businesses from offices to homes, complying with social distancing rule, they lost sight of cybersecurity. Once a risk only for global companies with offices in different countries, the threat of deepfakes are now valid for companies of any scale. We know that fraudulent financial instructions can be created, setting companies up to lose millions of dollars by cloning the voice of a company executive or by forging a convincing real-time video conference call. During the pandemic, vulnerable smaller companies, as well as their employees, may fall victim to many vicious schemes, such as bogus fund drives, fake tax collection, or forged liens.
The pandemic is also an extraordinary period that tests the competency of politics and bureaucracy. In these challenging times, deepfake attacks could spell big trouble at home and internationally for prominent political leaders in the government or opposition. All eyes and ears are on them for a solution to get through these testing times. Political leaders will find it extremely difficult to recover their losses and regain their reputation if a fake synthetic voice or video recordings of them turn into an infodemic, sending the public a false message supposedly from them.
Real threat to world peace and social order
The COVID-19 pandemic comes at a time when biological and chemical proliferation has turned into a race, and cultural differences are manipulated by xenophobic discourse. The fight that each country is giving against the COVID-19 novel coronavirus today may evolve into enmity or even a new cold war between the countries that accuse or hold each other responsible once the pandemic has been curbed. As COVID-19 emerges and spreads through countries, cooperation and solidarity issues may arise, and a viral deepfake infodemic could end up sabotaging world peace because of the rage that may run rampant in the countries that pay a higher price. International diplomacy may have its work cut out for it in the face of voice and video recordings made with AI-based deepfakes technologies.
The threat of an infodemic on every country’s social peace and public order is as real as it is on international peace. Infodemic deepfake media content containing cloned voices or reproduced synthetic images could spread via social networks, provoking irreparable tragedies including panic, public unrest, violence, looting, and racist attacks in many countries.
An infodemic renders human life and health systems defenseless
An infodemic that escalates throughout the world as a combination of disinformation and misinformation would not only endanger people’s health and lives through false information and trajectories, but it would also present a great risk to public health by compromising the local health system. There would be endless dire consequences brought on by AI-based digital fake sound and video recordings that present protection methods against the coronavirus or self-treatment remedies during the quarantine period, supposedly by a medical doctor, or someone representing a professional health organization or a ministry, or an international health organization such as WHO. The pandemic is already overwhelming local health organizations’ bed and intensive care unit capacities, and it would create a greater burden with an infodemic assault precipitated by deepfakes messages that encourage the use of harmful chemicals, absolute alcohol, or disinfectants, or medicines that are developed for other illnesses against COVID-19.
The threat of an infodemic seems here to stay for an unforeseeable future, regardless of the upcoming deepfake detection models discovered as a result of the Deepfake Detection Challenge (DFDC) lead by Facebook, or the Deepfakes Accountability Act discussed in the United States, or the deepfake constrictions that global social networks such as Facebook and Twitter are trying to endorse. Once detected, infodemic content may be removed from social networks and websites; however, that does not stop them from turning into “zombie” content and finding their way into the internet archives. In fact, they may attract more attention than real and authentic content. Let’s cover zombie contents another day and remember, “A lie could prowl half-way around the world before the truth gets out.”