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Keeping it Real: Historians in the Deepfake Era

If you have been on social media in recent months, you have probably encountered long-dead historical figures staring back at you, blinking, and tilting their heads with animatronic detachment. These eerie living portraits were created using Deep Nostalgia, a new app from genealogy website My Heritage that animates images using AI. Less than a week after the app’s release, users had already uploaded more than 8 million images, animating everyone from Neanderthals to Jesus Christ

Deep Nostalgia is just one example of the “deepfakes” to be found online. Generally speaking, a deepfake is a video that has been altered using machine-learning algorithms to show hyper-realistic people saying and doing things that they never said or did. Some videos seamlessly transplant one person’s face onto another person’s body, while others create an entire person from scratch. The living portraits produced by Deep Nostalgia are relatively shoddy, and thus qualify as “cheapfakes,” but the most advanced deepfakes are difficult if not impossible to detect with the naked eye. 

The first deepfake to gain widespread attention was released in 2018. The video appeared to show Barack Obama saying, “Donald Trump is a total and complete dipshit.” In fact, the video was an effective PSA from director Jordan Peele about the dangers of deepfakes. Acting as an invisible marionette, Peele used the Obama avatar to caution viewers about the potential dangers of deepfakes. In the years since, several other deepfakes have also gone viral. Perhaps you’ve seen the video that shows Bill Hader morphing into Arnold Schwarzenegger, or the one that places Will Smith’s face on Cardi B’s body. 

It is not yet clear how deepfakes will influence the historical discipline, but opinions run the gamut. Some researchers believe that historians will ultimately find deepfakes to be useful, even benevolent. Legal experts Danielle Citron and Robert Chesney have heralded their pedagogical potential, insisting that deepfakes might liven up otherwise boring history lectures. Others have leveraged deepfakes to explore alternate histories. For example, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology produced an award-winning short film in 2019 called “In Event of Moon Disaster,” which featured a deepfake version of President Nixon seated at his desk, solemnly informing the nation that the Apollo 11 astronauts had perished on the moon. A related website includes teaching resources that helps viewers learn more about media literacy.

As a teacher, I can see how historians might use apps like Deep Nostalgia to great effect. Students could research and write historically informed scripts, which they then use to animate different historical figures. They could stage well-sourced debates between historical figures from different eras. In other words, we could design lesson plans and assignments to match the medium, in much the same way many teachers now ask students to create memes, Twitter threads, and unessays about the course material.

Even so, the preponderance of evidence suggests that there are legitimate reasons for concern. After all, malicious actors have long proved willing to mischaracterize the historical record in service of ideology. Consider the fraudulent Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which has fueled anti-Semitism for more than a century despite its clearly fabricated origins. More recently, studies have shown that white supremacists routinely co-opt and misrepresent research on genetic genealogy to suit their racist worldviews. One can only imagine how neo-Confederates and neo-Nazis might attempt to revise the historical record with help from deepfakes. It should concern all of us, no matter our political affiliation. Truth decay benefits no one but demagogues and anarchists.

Read entire article at Perspectives on History