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The Future Will Be Synthesised: a glimpse into a deepfake dystopia

The rise of “deepfake porn” – turning harmless images into hardcore footage – begins a BBC Radio 4 series on a disturbing modern phenomenon.

By Rachel Cunliffe

What would you do if one day you stumbled across pornography – of you? Only it isn’t you, it’s porn actors – with your face superimposed onto their bodies? That was the reality for Noelle Martin, a survivor of “deepfake porn”, who has spent years trying to get sexualised content that uses her face taken off online platforms and campaigning for governments to tackle this new form of abuse. 

Martin’s story, told in episode one of The Future Will Be Synthesised, is just one consequence of the deepfake phenomenon. “Synthetic media is all around us,” says presenter Henry Ajder; the technology now exists to create realistic videos of things that never happened. You might have seen a viral clip of Barack Obama warning about a “fucked-up dystopia” – an obvious fake, made by Buzzfeed and the filmmaker Jordan Peele to highlight where synthetic media is taking us. There are more sinister examples: in March, Volodymyr Zelensky appeared to broadcast a video telling Ukrainian troops to put down their weapons. Deepfakes are already a weapon of war, and the democratic risk they pose will be covered in future episodes. 

[See also: Radio 4’s Red Lines is a heavy-handed attempt to pin today’s crisis in Ukraine on squeamish MPs in 2013]

But there’s a reason Ajder starts with the porn rather than the politics: it’s harrowing to contemplate this technology being turned not on world leaders or celebrities, but on us. This kind of digital abuse is an “industry”, with websites where prospective buyers can order “custom deepfakes” of people they want to see play out their degrading fantasies. One service offers to “nudify” women – to strip the clothes from them in a fully dressed photo – promising “there is no woman in the world who cannot be nudified by this technology”. There is little victims can do to get content removed.

I don’t doubt Ajder’s assertion that a world in which anyone can build their own scarily convincing simulations of reality is a threat to democracy. But listening to Martin’s story made me think the title is wrong. Forget the future – welcome to the synthesised present.

The Future Will Be Synthesised
BBC Radio 4, available on BBC Sounds

[See also: The unnerving horror of BBC Radio 4’s Lusus]

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This article appears in the 25 May 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Out of Control