While deepfake is entertaining, it wasn't funny anymore as in 2016 people unknowingly shared such deepfake videos on social media million times, furthering the spread of disinformation during the US presidential election. In the last four years, deepfake or synthetic technology has evolved, making it even more difficult to distinguish between fake and real.

Thus, when a non-partisan advocacy group RepresentUs decided to air such deepfake ads, featuring Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, the U.S. local news channels pulled the plug at the last minute. The ads were harmless with even a disclaimer in the end but the broadcasters didn't feel comfortable.

Deepfakes
Deepfakes of Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and North Korea's Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un YouTube/ RepresentUs

What Were the Ads About?

The 2020 U.S. Presidential Election is probably not as heated as the last one but with the Coronavirus pandemic, anti-racism protests across the country and worsening relations with China, it's a fragile time for its democracy.

In addition, incumbent President Donald Trump's mistrust and attacks on mail-in voting and refusing to have a peaceful transition if he is to lose, the situation isn't like all other previous elections. The divide among the Americans has grown larger.

The purpose of the ads is to warn Americans using two "dictators" who have allegedly attempted to interfere in the U.S. elections. It urges Americans to take action so that democracy, despite its fragile nature, can exist. It tries to reverse the current understanding of deepfakes that it is inherently bad and are made with malicious intent to confuse people.

"There is so much noise in this political environment that people can be overwhelmed and left feeling it's all out of their hands, there's nothing they can do. Apathy is actually the intent of the noise. It was really critical to cut through all of that in a way that provokes," said Greg Hahn, co-founder and chief creative officer at Mischief @ No Fixed Address, the creative agency behind the ads.

In the ads, deepfake Putin is seen saying: "America, you blame me for interfering with your democracy, but I don't have to. You're doing it to yourselves. Polling stations are closing. You don't know who to trust. You are divided. There are strings we can pull, but we don't have to. You are pulling them for us."

As for deepfake Kim Jong Un, he says, "Democracy is a fragile thing. More fragile than you want to believe. If the election fails, there is no democracy. I don't have to do anything. You are doing it to yourselves. The people are divided. Your voting districts are manipulated. Voting locations are closing, so, millions can't vote. It's not hard for democracy to collapse," adding that "all you have to do is nothing" with a sinister smile.

How Did They Make the Ads?

Working with Mischief, RepresentUs wanted to deliver a message to the American voters. Mischief came up with the idea of using "dictators". While CGI (computer-generated imagery) could have been more authentic, the team settled in on artificial intelligence (AI) as it is way cheaper. The agency auditioned dozens of actors for the two roles with right face shape and accents to read the scripts. They gave AI makeover to the actors before settling on the two.

After filming the two actors, a deepfake artist then swapped faces of Putin and Kim using an open-source AI algorithm while the post-production team polished the videos to make them more realistic. The complete process took only 10 days while in general CGI takes months.

"By featuring two leaders who have a vested interest in the collapse of our democratic system, we are putting the American people face-to-face with just how fragile our democracy really is," Joshua Graham Lynn, Co-Founder and President at RepresentUs told MediaPost.

"We hope it inspires Americans to come together to fight for this one issue that unites us all. But it is at our own peril that we ignore the threats right here at home. It's time to wake up and fight for our sacred democracy," he added.

Fox, CNN and MSNBC affiliates were supposed to broadcast the ads but banned airing them at the last minute. RepresentUs said that it was still waiting for an explanation from the networks.