Misinformation in the Dutch Society
Before diving into deepfakes specifically, let’s take a closer look at the concept of misinformation. To explore this topic, I spoke to Annique Mossou, an open-source investigator at Bellingcat, who has recently been doing research on QAnon and conspiracy theories on Covid-19. She explained that, during her work, she noticed how some people simply tend to be very selective in the type of information that they believe, since they might very selectively look for information that is in line with their own ideas. “There is quite some space to do your own research nowadays, and people don’t always realise that the algorithms on social media and your own search engine terminologies will steer you towards a specific angle. Some people will just search for something so specific.” She explains that people can, in principle, find all the information that they want to find on platforms such as Google when using specific words in a specific order or by placing them in quotation marks. Luckily, Bellingcat tries to disprove false stories or hoaxes whenever they are distributed immensely. “We try to either verify or disprove certain information and we’ll then write an article on it. However, we do not always want to attract too much attention to certain cases of misinformation or disinformation. Only when a specific hoax turns out to circulate on a huge scale, and we can prove that it is not a true story, we will write an article on it.”
When asked whether she thought that deepfake videos could somehow influence this phenomenon of misinformation within society, Mossou answered: “Although I don’t think that the danger of deepfakes is necessarily exaggerated, I do think that some people are just very selective in the information that they believe. If I would pick up a camera and film myself whilst very convincingly promoting a certain false idea, there will be people who believe me, so I don’t think deepfakes are needed to spread misinformation. It doesn’t matter if I say it, if you say it or if Mark Rutte allegedly said it… some people will just believe it as long as it fits with their own expectations.” Mossou also mentions that quite some misinformation tends to be spread on alternative media platforms rather than Facebook or Instagram, since those mainstream platforms are applying and developing fact-checking functions. “Die-hard hoax or conspiracy theory believers will often turn to other platforms such as Gab or if Youtube deletes a specific video, they will just upload it on BitChute. So even if you try to get rid of misinformation on social media, you’re pushing some people away towards alternative platforms.” She mentions that it is, therefore, important to always use your common sense when you encounter information online.
Deepfakes & the Dutch Society
Perhaps, then, deepfakes are just prone to become a part of a larger issue of misinformation within society. If this is the case, are deepfakes then truly always as threatening and dangerous as they are thought to be? And what is it that we should look out for specifically when talking about deepfake media content? To find this out, I contacted two researchers who have recently been analysing the effects of deepfakes on society and individuals.
I first spoke to Pieter van Boheemen, a researcher at the Rathenau Institute, which is a Dutch organisation that examines the political opinions on technology advancements in the Netherlands by analysing what kinds of technologies are emerging and what political questions and public interests or public rights are connected to that. In one of their recent reports, named Digital Threats to Democracy: On new technology and disinformation, an investigation was done on new technological developments and the possible influence that they might have on the production and spread of disinformation within the Netherlands. Deepfakes were one of the technologies that had been examined during this research. According to Van Boheemen, it seems that the risk of deepfakes in the Netherlands will probably mainly be found in private spheres and less so in mass media communications or public debate. He indicated that several studies found that deepfakes did not have any greater effect on people compared to manipulated texts or other forms of misinformation. “Some parties tend to use very powerful terms and bold statements like ‘infocalyps' and ‘infodemic,’ as if the world will perish due to misinformation. However, I don’t think people in the Netherlands will suddenly be completely fooled by those videos and deepfakes are likely not going to end our democratic society.” Van Boheemen did point out, however, that there might be some impacts on society due to deepfakes: “In private online communication spheres, such as Whatsapp or Telegram channels, there are fewer opportunities to monitor and disprove the messages that are being spread. If you publicly show manipulated content, there is a huge chance people will find out rather quickly that the information is actually false. We, therefore, predict that deepfakes will probably have more impacts within private communication channels and less so within mass communication.”
However, what kinds of risks would those deepfakes bring within such private spheres? Van Boheemen thinks that the risk within the Dutch society will likely be found in the act of damaging the reputation of regular individuals, rather than the intentional spread of political or societal misinformation. “Influencing public discourse by means of deepfakes or manipulated media content will be much more difficult, especially when you create a deepfake of someone who is still alive and who can immediately react to it. If you are a public persona, you have a sort of stage that you can use to defend yourself. However, individuals in privacy settings are a lot more vulnerable to deepfakes. Think about slander and libel, pornographic deepfakes, intimidating or blackmailing people… damaging people in private spheres in all sorts of way. For example, it seems as though deepfakes are currently especially targeting women to harm their reputation with sexual deepfakes. It is much harder to defend yourself as a non-public individual to such deepfakes.”
Tom Dobber, a researcher at the faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences of the University of Amsterdam who recently conducted research on deepfakes and their effects on political attitudes, expressed similar ideas as Van Boheemen. He stated that, in the Netherlands, there is no need to fear “political deepfakes, in which words will be put in the mouth of politicians to damage their reputation.” He explained that, since it was discovered that the alleged deepfake of Nalavny’s chief of staff turned out not to be a deepfake, there have been “zero serious political deepfakes circulating” in the Netherlands. Moreover, he indicated that it has been possible for several decades to manipulate visual materials, since photoshop was already invented in 1987 and made it much easier for regular people to potentially damage someone’s reputation. He mentioned that, “although this could, in theory, be life-threateningly dangerous, there has been no point in time that this has lead to significant incidents”. Dobber believes that the “alarmism about deepfakes” could potentially lead to instances in which all information will be considered suspicious in advance, which would be counterproductive. He indicated that, in the past, people who would encounter disinformation would usually examine this via sources that would systematically gather information, such as journalistic references. However, nowadays, many alternative channels have been developed that do not use any systematic methods to gather information, or sometimes even spread disinformation instead. According to Dobber, this change in “information context” is the real problem, not the fake news messages, photoshop or deepfake content that have increasingly been found online. He indicates that it would probably be best to accept that, every now and then, deepfakes might emerge and that people should be stimulated to think about how certain information has been developed instead. He also says that it will be important not to encourage people to be suspicious of all informational media content. Instead, we should put trust in our journalistic sources, since they will be able to find faulty information and rectify the misinformation that has been spread.
My name is Rebecca Haselhoff, an MA student of Media Studies: Digital Cultures at Maastricht University. I’m doing a research internship at Beeld en Geluid, focusing on deepfake technologies and the different ways in which deepfakes can be used and what impacts they can have on society.