On Tuesday, BuzzFeed posted a video of what appears to be former President Obama giving a public service announcement about fake news before insulting President Trump. The video is fake, of course, as Obama would likely never say something like that in public. But although the Obama fake news video isn't real, the PSA behind it is, and it shines the spotlight on an extremely serious problem that one expert has dubbed the "information apocalypse."
“We’re entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time — even if they would never say those things,” Obama appears to say in the video. “So, for instance, they could have me say things like, I don’t know, Killmonger was right. Or Ben Carson is in the sunken place. Or, how ’bout this: Simply, President Trump is a total and complete dipsh*t.”
Although the clip is very convincing — Obama's lips move in perfect sync with what he appears to be saying — it's a fabrication. It was created using new software that, in essence, allows a user to realistically replace one person's face in a video clip with somebody else's, resulting in what's called a "deepfake." Fake Obama's voice was provided by none other than Get Out creator Jordan Peele, who conceived the project with BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti (the two are brothers-in-law).
Peele's Obama impression, while good, is of course not the real issue here. The issue is the technology that allowed Peele and Peretti make it look as if Obama was saying...well, whatever they wanted him to say. That software only hit the mainstream in 2017, and like so many technological innovations, one of its first uses was in porn. But its implications are more far-reaching than that, and far more scary.
"What happens when anyone can make it appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did?," technologist Aviv Ovadya told BuzzFeed in February. "You don't need to create the fake video for this tech to have a serious impact. You just point to the fact that the tech exists and you can impugn the integrity of the stuff that’s real."
Ovadya coined the term "information apocalypse" — or "infopocalypse" for short — to describe the future he foresees, wherein face-swapping technology becomes so ubiquitous and convincing that it's nearly impossible to determine what's real and what's fake. This will be especially true when it comes to the news, which is what compelled Peele and Peretti to make the fake Obama PSA.
"This is a dangerous time," Peele-as-Obama says in the video. "Moving forward, we need to be more vigilant with what we trust from the Internet. It's a time when we need to rely on trusted news sources. May sound basic, but how we move forward, in the age of information, is going to be the difference between whether we survive, or whether we become some kind of f*cked up dystopia."
The Obama deepfake was created by BuzzFeed producer Jared Sosa using Adobe After Effects and a piece of software known as FakeApp, a user-friendly version of the machine learning technology that replaces faces in videos. The process isn't automatic or easy, however. It requires source material, which in this case was footage of Obama giving a speech and of Peele's lip's speaking the words that were later put in Obama's mouth. It also takes time: Rendering the Obama video took 56 hours, according to BuzzFeed.
The takeaway is clear: As face-swapping technology improves, sussing out real news from fake news is going to get a whole lot harder, and every news consumer has to be prepared for that eventuality. To that effect, BuzzFeed released a short guide on how to spot deepfakes.
"Thank you, and stay woke, b*tches," the fake Obama says at the end of the PSA.