[This talk contains mature content]
Rana Ayyub is a journalist in India whose work has exposed government corruption and human rights violations. And over the years, she's gotten used to vitriol and controversy around her work. But none of it could have prepared her for what she faced in April 2018.
She was sitting in a café with a friend when she first saw it: a two-minute, 20-second video of her engaged in a sex act. And she couldn't believe her eyes. She had never made a sex video. But unfortunately, thousands upon thousands of people would believe it was her.
I interviewed Ms. Ayyub about three months ago, in connection with my book on sexual privacy. I'm a law professor, lawyer and civil rights advocate. So it's incredibly frustrating knowing that right now, law could do very little to help her. And as we talked, she explained that she should have seen the fake sex video coming. She said, "After all, sex is so often used to demean and to shame women, especially minority women, and especially minority women who dare to challenge powerful men," as she had in her work. The fake sex video went viral in 48 hours. All of her online accounts were flooded with screenshots of the video, with graphic rape and death threats and with slurs about her Muslim faith. Online posts suggested that she was "available" for sex. And she was doxed, which means that her home address and her cell phone number were spread across the internet. The video was shared more than 40,000 times.
Now, when someone is targeted with this kind of cybermob attack, the harm is profound. Rana Ayyub's life was turned upside down. For weeks, she could hardly eat or speak. She stopped writing and closed all of her social media accounts, which is, you know, a tough thing to do when you're a journalist. And she was afraid to go outside her family's home. What if the posters made good on their threats? The UN Council on Human Rights confirmed that she wasn't being crazy. It issued a public statement saying that they were worried about her safety.
What Rana Ayyub faced was a deepfake: machine-learning technology that manipulates or fabricates audio and video recordings to show people doing and saying things that they never did or said. Deepfakes appear authentic and realistic, but they're not; they're total falsehoods. Although the technology is still developing in its sophistication, it is widely available.
Now, the most recent attention to deepfakes arose, as so many things do online, with pornography.
In early 2018, someone posted a tool on Reddit to allow users to insert faces into porn videos. And what followed was a cascade of fake porn videos featuring people's favorite female celebrities. And today, you can go on YouTube and pull up countless tutorials with step-by-step instructions on how to make a deepfake on your desktop application. And soon we may be even able to make them on our cell phones. Now, it's the interaction of some of our most basic human frailties and network tools that can turn deepfakes into weapons. So let me explain.
As human beings, we have a visceral reaction to audio and video. We believe they're true, on the notion that of course you can believe what your eyes and ears are telling you. And it's that mechanism that might undermine our shared sense of reality. Although we believe deepfakes to be true, they're not. And we're attracted to the salacious, the provocative. We tend to believe and to share information that's negative and novel. And researchers have found that online hoaxes spread 10 times faster than accurate stories. Now, we're also drawn to information that aligns with our viewpoints. Psychologists call that tendency "confirmation bias." And social media platforms supercharge that tendency, by allowing us to instantly and widely share information that accords with our viewpoints.
Now, deepfakes have the potential to cause grave individual and societal harm. So, imagine a deepfake that shows American soldiers in Afganistan burning a Koran. You can imagine that that deepfake would provoke violence against those soldiers. And what if the very next day there's another deepfake that drops, that shows a well-known imam based in London praising the attack on those soldiers? We might see violence and civil unrest, not only in Afganistan and the United Kingdom, but across the globe.
And you might say to me, "Come on, Danielle, that's far-fetched." But it's not. We've seen falsehoods spread on WhatsApp and other online message services lead to violence against ethnic minorities. And that was just text — imagine if it were video.
Now, deepfakes have the potential to corrode the trust that we have in democratic institutions. So, imagine the night before an election. There's a deepfake showing one of the major party candidates gravely sick. The deepfake could tip the election and shake our sense that elections are legitimate. Imagine if the night before an initial public offering of a major global bank, there was a deepfake showing the bank's CEO drunkenly spouting conspiracy theories. The deepfake could tank the IPO, and worse, shake our sense that financial markets are stable.
So deepfakes can exploit and magnify the deep distrust that we already have in politicians, business leaders and other influential leaders. They find an audience primed to believe them. And the pursuit of truth is on the line as well. Technologists expect that with advances in AI, soon it may be difficult if not impossible to tell the difference between a real video and a fake one.
So how can the truth emerge in a deepfake-ridden marketplace of ideas? Will we just proceed along the path of least resistance and believe what we want to believe, truth be damned? And not only might we believe the fakery, we might start disbelieving the truth. We've already seen people invoke the phenomenon of deepfakes to cast doubt on real evidence of their wrongdoing. We've heard politicians say of audio of their disturbing comments, "Come on, that's fake news. You can't believe what your eyes and ears are telling you." And it's that risk that professor Robert Chesney and I call the "liar's dividend": the risk that liars will invoke deepfakes to escape accountability for their wrongdoing.
So we've got our work cut out for us, there's no doubt about it. And we're going to need a proactive solution from tech companies, from lawmakers, law enforcers and the media. And we're going to need a healthy dose of societal resilience. So now, we're right now engaged in a very public conversation about the responsibility of tech companies. And my advice to social media platforms has been to change their terms of service and community guidelines to ban deepfakes that cause harm. That determination, that's going to require human judgment, and it's expensive. But we need human beings to look at the content and context of a deepfake to figure out if it is a harmful impersonation or instead, if it's valuable satire, art or education.
So now, what about the law? Law is our educator. It teaches us about what's harmful and what's wrong. And it shapes behavior it deters by punishing perpetrators and securing remedies for victims. Right now, law is not up to the challenge of deepfakes. Across the globe, we lack well-tailored laws that would be designed to tackle digital impersonations that invade sexual privacy, that damage reputations and that cause emotional distress. What happened to Rana Ayyub is increasingly commonplace. Yet, when she went to law enforcement in Delhi, she was told nothing could be done. And the sad truth is that the same would be true in the United States and in Europe.
So we have a legal vacuum that needs to be filled. My colleague Dr. Mary Anne Franks and I are working with US lawmakers to devise legislation that would ban harmful digital impersonations that are tantamount to identity theft. And we've seen similar moves in Iceland, the UK and Australia. But of course, that's just a small piece of the regulatory puzzle.
Now, I know law is not a cure-all. Right? It's a blunt instrument. And we've got to use it wisely. It also has some practical impediments. You can't leverage law against people you can't identify and find. And if a perpetrator lives outside the country where a victim lives, then you may not be able to insist that the perpetrator come into local courts to face justice. And so we're going to need a coordinated international response. Education has to be part of our response as well. Law enforcers are not going to enforce laws they don't know about and proffer problems they don't understand. In my research on cyberstalking, I found that law enforcement lacked the training to understand the laws available to them and the problem of online abuse. And so often they told victims, "Just turn your computer off. Ignore it. It'll go away." And we saw that in Rana Ayyub's case. She was told, "Come on, you're making such a big deal about this. It's boys being boys." And so we need to pair new legislation with efforts at training.
And education has to be aimed on the media as well. Journalists need educating about the phenomenon of deepfakes so they don't amplify and spread them. And this is the part where we're all involved. Each and every one of us needs educating. We click, we share, we like, and we don't even think about it. We need to do better. We need far better radar for fakery.
So as we're working through these solutions, there's going to be a lot of suffering to go around. Rana Ayyub is still wrestling with the fallout. She still doesn't feel free to express herself on- and offline. And as she told me, she still feels like there are thousands of eyes on her naked body, even though, intellectually, she knows it wasn't her body. And she has frequent panic attacks, especially when someone she doesn't know tries to take her picture. "What if they're going to make another deepfake?" she thinks to herself. And so for the sake of individuals like Rana Ayyub and the sake of our democracy, we need to do something right now.