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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Despite the sharp alarms being sounded over deepfakes — uncannily realistic AI-generated videos showing real people doing and saying fictional things —security experts believe that the videos ultimately don't offer propagandists much advantage compared to the simpler forms of disinformation they are likely to use.

Why it matters: It’s easy to see how a viral video that appears to show, say, the U.S. president declaring war would cause panic — until, of course, the video was debunked. But deepfakes are not an efficient form of a long-term disinformation campaign.

Deepfakes are detectable. Deepfakes are only undetectable to humans, not computers. In fact, a leading online reputation security firm, ZeroFOX, announced last week it would begin offering a proactive deepfake detection service.

  • “It’s not like you’ll never be able to trust audio and video again,” said Matt Price, principal research engineer at ZeroFOX.
  • There are a number of ways to detect AI-generated video, ranging from digital artifacts in the audio and video, misaligned shadows and lighting, and human anomalies that can be detected by machine, like eye movement, blink rate and even heart rate.
  • Price noted that current detection techniques likely won't be nimble enough for a network the size of YouTube to screen every video, meaning users would likely see — and spread — a fake before it was debunked.

But, but, but: If we have learned anything from the manipulated Nancy Pelosi video and years of work from conservative provocateur James O’Keefe, it's this: A lot of people will go on believing manipulative content rather than demonstrable truth if the manipulation brings them comfort. It doesn’t take high-tech lying to do that.

The intrigue: As Camille François, chief innovation officer at Graphika, a firm used by the Senate Intelligence Committee to analyze Russian disinformation on social media, told Codebook, “When I consider the problem, I don’t worry about deepfakes first.”

  • She added, “There are really sophisticated disinformation campaigns run by threat actors with a lot of money, and they don’t do fake stuff — it’s not efficient. They steal content that’s divisive or repurpose other content.”
  • Or as Darren L. Linvill, a Clemson University researcher on Russian social media disinformation, put it, deepfakes will be “less of a problem than funny memes.”
  • “A lot of research shows fake news is not the problem many people think it is," he said. "[The Internet Research Agency, a Russian social media manipulation outfit], for instance, barely employed what you could truly call ‘fake news’ after early 2015."

When disinformation groups do use fake media in their campaigns, it usually takes the form of fake images presented in a misleading context — so-called "shallow fakes." François uses the example of denying the reality of a chemical weapons attack by tweeting a photo of the same area that predates the attack.

  • "Shallow fakes" are cheaper, faster, require no technical expertise and can’t be disproven by signals analysis.

The bottom line: Deepfakes take advantage of human vulnerabilities that can be exploited much more efficiently by other means.

  • That means the disinformation problem won't be solved through technology or policy alone.
  • “Nations that have successfully built resilience to these problems have included digital literacy elements to better protect their populations,” said Peter Singer, co-author of "LikeWar," a book on social media disinformation.

Go deeper

5 hours ago - World

Maximum pressure campaign escalates with Fakhrizadeh killing

Photo: Fars News Agency via AP

The assassination of Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s military nuclear program, is a new height in the maximum pressure campaign led by the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government against Iran.

Why it matters: It exceeds the capture of the Iranian nuclear archives by the Mossad, and the sabotage in the advanced centrifuge facility in Natanz.

Scoop: Biden weighs retired General Lloyd Austin for Pentagon chief

Lloyd Austin testifying before Congress in 2015. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Joe Biden is considering retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his nominee for defense secretary, adding him to a shortlist that includes Jeh Johnson, Tammy Duckworth and Michele Flournoy, two sources with direct knowledge of the decision-making tell Axios.

Why it matters: A nominee for Pentagon chief was noticeably absent when the president-elect rolled out his national security team Tuesday. Flournoy had been widely seen as the likely pick, but Axios is told other factors — race, experience, Biden's comfort level — have come into play.

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: WHO: AstraZeneca vaccine must be evaluated on "more than a press release."
  2. Politics: Supreme Court backs religious groups on New York COVID restrictions.
  3. World: Thailand, Philippines sign deal with AstraZeneca for vaccine.
  4. Economy: Safety nets to disappear in December Black Friday shopping across the U.S., in photosAmazon hires 1,400 workers a day throughout pandemic.
  5. Education: National standardized tests delayed until 2022.