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Obama Tells Ottawa Crowd ‘Deepfake’ Videos Have Him Worried

“People can duplicate me speaking and saying anything.”
Former U.S. president Barack Obama speaks at the Canadian Tire Centre at an event hosted by Ottawa-based think tank Canada 2020 on May 31, 2019.
Canada 2020
Former U.S. president Barack Obama speaks at the Canadian Tire Centre at an event hosted by Ottawa-based think tank Canada 2020 on May 31, 2019.

OTTAWA — Barack Obama says he’s concerned “deepfake” videos will have real-life consequences, messing with people’s abilities to sort fact from fiction.

The former U.S. president told an Ottawa audience Friday evening he’s seen fake videos bearing his likeness, powered by artificial intelligence, modelling his voice and movements.

“People can duplicate me speaking and saying anything. And it sounds like me and it looks like I’m saying it — and it’s a complete fabrication,” Obama said.

He explained part of the problem is because the human brain hasn’t adapted quickly enough to process the onslaught of information readily available to them on multiple platforms, and A.I. is only going to make things worse. Especially for democracies, he said.

“The marketplace of ideas that is the basis of our democratic practice has difficulty working if we don’t have some common baseline of what’s true and what’s not.”

“Deepfake” technology uses machine-learning algorithms to analyze archives of video and audio recordings to create realistic impersonations. Advancements in this area have caused concerns it could be used to mislead voters.

Watch: Combating threat from ‘deepfakes’

Academy Award-winning director Jordan Peele and BuzzFeed used A.I. to produce a viral “deepfake” of Obama to deliver a PSA about fake videos last year. Around the same time, a Belgium political party released a low-quality “deepfake” video of U.S. President Donald Trump urging the country to walk away from the Paris climate agreement.

Concerns have been increasing about the spread of disinformation, especially because the internet doesn’t have natural borders to limit the impact of so-called fake news.

Social media giants are now facing more pressure than ever from governments to be more accountable for aiding and abetting disinformation campaigns that could lead to electoral interference and real-world harms.

Facebook ‘aggressively downranking’ doctored Nancy Pelosi video

The former U.S. president’s hour-long conversation at the Canadian Tire Centre follows an international gathering of parliamentarians earlier this week, grilling social media companies’ lack of accountability over disinformation campaigns hosted on their platforms.

Representing 11 countries, the international grand committee questioned representatives from Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others about their policies for three days of hearings.

Facebook was repeatedly asked to explain its decision to not take down a doctored video of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that was slowed down to make it seem like she was intoxicated. Policies differ from platform to platform. YouTube, for example, removed the doctored Pelosi video.

A representative for Facebook sidestepped the question and said they were “aggressively downranking that film.” The company’s current policy is to label it as “fake” and inform Facebook users and only remove it if it leads to “offline harm.”

Meanwhile Twitter said the company shares concerns about “deepfake” videos, adding that misinformation is removed from the platform “if it violates our rules.”

Watch: Facebook grilled about doctored Nancy Pelosi video

Obama said he personally knows the people who created Facebook and Google. The power those platforms have “as essentially a common carrier of ideas” means “there has to be some sort of collective conversation about how that works,” he said.

He compared the buffet of media choices today to what he had access to as a child.

“You had three networks,” he said, adding that people’s preferences were based on which newscasters they preferred. “But they were basically telling the same story. There were similar standards of confirmation in how you established what was true and what was not.”

But there are some positives that have developed out of this new digital age.

Obama pointed to social media’s ability to “create social solidarity in ways that would not have been possible 50 years ago, 100 years ago.”

And that unifying effect has shaped young people today to be “so much more sophisticated” about other cultures, and peoples, he explained, adding technology has also created a basic bedrock of tolerance and curiosity and interest about different people. He used his daughters Malia and Sasha as examples.

The idea that they would treat someone differently because of their sexual orientation “doesn’t compute,” he said. But despite the marketplace of ideas being more accessible than ever, Obama said society as a whole needs to do a better job educating kids on media literacy.

The challenge now is to figure out how to “build better platforms for establishing some common truths” that will reinforce reading and listening skills rather than the muscle reflex to just scroll.

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