Suppose tomorrow, or during the Republican National Convention, or maybe two days before the election, a video of President Trump appears. It's filmed vertically, obviously with a cell phone, and a corner of paper sometimes appears in the frame for a few seconds, as if the filmmaker — an administration intern? an aide? the anonymous author of that New York Times piece? — is trying to hide his camera work. Trump is standing in a hallway, maybe at the White House or Mar-a-Lago, and you can't see his conversation partner, whose voice from around the corner is a little muffled. But you can clearly see and hear Trump, and he says the n-word. Or he admits to committing election fraud in Michigan in 2016. Or he describes raping a woman on the set of The Apprentice. Or he reveals he already has bombers in the air, heading for Tehran. Or he says anything which fits with some established attribute or habit — his racism, his campaign's willingness (if not competence) to play dirty, his long history of sexual misconduct and assault, his militarism and snap judgments — but takes it to a newly horrifying level.
You'd believe it, right?
And when Trump started issuing denials on Twitter, railing about the "fake news" and the "witch hunt" against him and the "lying do-nothing Democrats" who somehow made this compromising video, you'd smirk. C'mon. He obviously said it. We have video, and even if we didn't, it's entirely in step with his decades of public life. Plus, Trump lies constantly! He lies about stuff that doesn't matter at all. He has a record of denying saying things he said on tape. Remember "Tim Apple"? That's on video, but Trump still denied saying it. Or there's the time he called Meghan Markle "nasty" in a recorded interview, then pretended he didn't. So yeah, obviously the video is real. Obviously Trump is lying.
But what if it wasn't real? What if Trump were telling the truth? What if the election outcome changed or we got into war with Iran over a deepfake? Tech experts have warned that a well-timed deepfake video could be used to sink the eventual Democratic nominee's campaign against Trump — but I suspect the president's unique history of immorality and dishonesty makes a convincing Trump deepfake the far greater risk.
Truly convincing deepfakes have two elements. The first is technological proficiency, which, so far, most deepfakes lack. For example, a French charity released a Trump deepfake last year as a stunt to raise awareness about AIDs. The voice isn't great, and the face is visibly wonky:
No one would be fooled by this for more than half a second — nor were they supposed to be.
Likewise, a parody clip which inserted Trump's face into a scene from Better Call Saul is easily identified for the deepfake it is (the use of "[Deepfake]" in the title of the YouTube upload is also a giveaway):
But deepfake tech is improving rapidly, and with a skilled voice actor, a Trump deepfake could be perfectly convincing. An organization with the resources of a movie studio could do it right now, and it won't be long before this type of lie is far more accessible than that. Look at this TikTok I ran across recently, in which footage from The Office combined with the right head shape and skin tone makes for a pretty solid deepfake of Steve Carrell:
Trump may be the most filmed man in the world. Any word you want him to say, you can find footage of him saying it and get the facial movements exactly right.
The second part of a convincing deepfake is content plausibility. A few years ago, actor Jordan Peele made a PSA about deepfakes in which he voiced a video of former President Barack Obama. Peele's voice acting and the video quality are quite good — but, as "Obama" notes, he's saying things the real Obama would never say, signing off with, "Stay woke, bitches."
All of the leading Democratic candidates are conventional enough that it would be fairly difficult to hit on something their deepfake could say which would be both plausible and irreparably damning. For all but the reflexively partisan Republicans who never would have voted for a Democrat regardless, these candidates' vehement denial of a deepfake video would hold some weight. It would at least buy them time for an investigation. The content plausibility would be hard to get so precisely right that no one would be skeptical.
Not so with Trump. After "both sides" and "shithole countries," would Trump saying the n-word when he believed himself to be speaking in private surprise you? After "fire and fury" and the Soleimani assassination, would a sudden attack on Iran be inconceivable?
This is why Trump strikes me as the more likely candidate for an election-swinging deepfake attempt than any of his Democratic challengers. He has lied so much and so pointlessly, and he has said and done so many reprehensible things, that even his defenders probably would not question a well-designed deepfake.
Done right, I might well fall for it. You — and Iran — might too.