The Very Real Threat of Trump’s Deepfake

The president’s first use of a manipulated video of his opponent is a test of the boundaries.

Drop of Light / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

When people began talking about the political implications of deepfake technology—manipulating a video to transpose one person’s face on another’s body—they usually assumed that deepfakery would be deployed by some anonymous, hostile non-state actor, as a no-return-address, high-tech sabotage of democracy. Who imagined that the return address would be 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue?

Yet it has happened.

April 26, 2020, was an especially manic day in the presidency of Donald Trump. The day might have been expected to be a personal and familial one: the 50th birthday of Trump’s present wife and the first lady of the United States. Yet something was gnawing at him. Perhaps his business troubles were weighing on him. The pandemic has cut Trump’s corporate income by something like three-quarters since mid-March. Or perhaps Trump was still seething at the widespread ridicule of his press conference of April 23, when he suggested using disinfectant “by injection.” Or perhaps something else had shifted his mood from its usual setting of seething aggrievement to frothing fury.

Whatever the cause, between early afternoon and near 9 o’clock eastern time, Trump fired off a sequence of crazy-even-for-him tweets and retweets. He demanded that reporters be stripped of the “Noble prizes” they had supposedly been awarded for their reporting on Trump scandals, apparently conflating them with the Pulitzers—and then pretended that his misspelling of Nobel had been intentional. He complained about reporting on his work habits and hamburger eating, also misspelled. He fulminated against Fox News’ insufficiently adoring coverage, and against reports that he was considering scapegoating Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar for the mishandling of the pandemic. He retweeted an increasingly wild and weird range of supporters’ Twitter accounts.

And then, at 8:25:50 pm ET, the president retweeted an account he had never retweeted before. The account had posted a video of former Vice President Joe Biden, crudely and obviously manipulated to show him twitching his eyebrows and lolling his tongue. The caption read: “Sloppy Joe is trending. I wonder if it’s because of this. You can tell it’s a deep fake because Jill Biden isn’t covering for him.”

Whatever the intentions of the original tweeter—it purports to be the account of a left-wing activist supportive of the candidacy of Bernie Sanders—the Trump retweet looks like an experimental test of the rules of social media. Since earlier this year, Twitter has banned images that have been “significantly and deceptively altered or fabricated,” especially if they are likely to cause serious harm in some way. Because the account retweeted by Trump explicitly labels its video a “deep fake,” it arguably does not violate Twitter’s anti-deception policy. As of 8:30 this morning, the video remained live on Twitter and present on pro-Trump Facebook accounts.

In the campaign of 2016, Trump benefited from fake news disseminated by troll accounts, some Russian-sponsored. The most circulated fake-news item of 2016 claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Trump. That item was unlikely on its face. Pope Pius XI did not endorse Al Smith in 1928. Pope John XXIII did not endorse John F. Kennedy in 1960. Donald Trump launched Twitter attacks on the present pope in the spring of 2016, after the pope rebuked Trump’s stance against immigrants and refugees. But the power of a fake-news item does not depend on its plausibility. The power of a fake-news item depends on its target audience’s will to believe. In the autumn of 2016, many culturally conservative white Catholics strongly wished to believe that voting for Trump was consistent with their faith. Somebody provided them with a basis for that desire to believe, and the invitation was eagerly seized.

In 2020, Trump’s main opponent has been targeted with fakery again. Early in March, a deceptively edited video of a speech by Joe Biden was tweeted by pro-Trump accounts, including those of White House Communications Director Dan Scavino and Charlie Kirk, who heads the pro-Trump group Turning Point USA. Trump then retweeted the edited video. The video included a 14-second clip of a Biden speech in which he appeared to predict that “we can only reelect Donald Trump,” slicing out the end of the quote to turn a warning about Democratic disunity into an apparent endorsement. This early-March item was more a troll than a fake, more intended to mock than deceive.

But it was a step on the way. The late-April retweet is another step, and a big one. Instead of sharing deceptively edited video—as Trump and his allies have often done before—yesterday Trump for the first time shared a video that had been outrightly fabricated.

If it works, it may happen again—and in more cunning forms, closer to voting day.

Trump and the Republican Party face a darkening prospect in the 2020 election. A pandemic worsened by Trump’s negligence and indifference is taking thousands of American lives. The economy has been plunged into near–Great Depression levels of unemployment. Business failures are washing across the country. Millions of Americans are falling behind on rent and mortgage payments; queues at food banks stretch for blocks. Trump keeps promising that the virus will miraculously vanish on its own. Even if that prediction should come true, it cannot come true fast enough to restore the economy by voting day.

Amid the general disaster, Trump’s only hope for reelection is to inflame the resentments and bigotries of his base. Biden offers the Trump campaign less accelerant for its work of incitement than did Hillary Clinton in 2016. Perhaps Trump’s political allies in Russia will help him in 2020 as they did in 2016. But they have troubles of their own this time—and they may already have written Trump off as a doomed loser who has already done all the damage they could ever have hoped he would do, and more.

Unlike Clinton, Biden is not a woman, not a Yale Law graduate, not someone who became wealthy in or after politics. He’s a profoundly familiar presence in American life who has rapidly united the Democratic Party after a primary campaign in which the main line of attack on Biden was that he was insufficiently radical. How does an unpopular incumbent who has delivered only disasters to the country campaign against that? The answer may be: He doesn’t. Instead, the unpopular incumbent may unleash deepfakes that depict an entirely different challenger, and campaign against that fake.

Trump got impeached for trying to extort a foreign government to fabricate his anti-Biden dirt for him. As Trump’s situation becomes ever more desperate, Trump may now be driven to do the fabricating in-house.