Guest post: Deepfakes – What are they?

by Chris

Watching and reacting to the Buscemi-Lawrence video

At first glance it looks like Steve Buscemi has expanded his wardrobe, donning a sparkling, red dress at an awards Q&A event. Once he speaks, or rather she speaks you realise that the voice coming from his mouth is not his own. It’s the voice of Jennifer Lawrence.

My smirk of seeing Buscemi in a dress is replaced by confusion as I realise what I am watching. It’s Buscemi’s face superimposed onto Lawrence’s body. Actually it’s more than that. Online, we are accustomed to frankenstein images of faces cropped on to different bodies.

Only there’s nothing crude about this creation. Buscemi’s face is moulded onto Lawrence’s body, so that her gestures become his own. Head, eye, mouth movements almost imperceptible to the eye align perfectly. It’s such a close recreation that without prior knowledge of both actors; recognition of their image and distinctive voice one would find it difficult to know that this event has not occurred as shown in front of live cameras. Indeed, it was dreamt and created in the mind of a programmer.

The depth of the fakery produced by this technology is apt given its name: a deepfake.

How are deepfakes made?

Actually the name ‘deepfake’ comes from the deep learning algorithm used to create these fake moving images.

To make a deepfake one requires three ingredients. A computer, a working knowledge of a neural network, known as a ‘generative adversarial network’ or GAN,  and video footage of a person or persons to train the network. Alternatively, it is just as easy to pay a programmer to create a deepfake for you, for little cost.

Video footage is fed into the GAN which is actually composed of two neural networks. The first network tries to make the video footage align as closely as possible, superimposing one face onto another body and matching intricate facial details such as lip movement. The second network identifies mistakes in the output, acting as an adversary of the first network, teaching it and improving its final product. Hence over time, even without high-quality video footage, the first network is able to produce hyper realistic creations such as the Buscemi-Lawrence video.

At present two types of deepfakes have been shared online, with the potential for more variations. The first is a basic face swap, as seen in the Buscemi-Lawrence video, and fake celebrity porngraphic videos.  The second is a voice swap.

In an awareness-raising campaign, Buzzfeed commissioned two deepfake videos of Barack Obama.  Both videos show Obama speaking to the camera from the Oval Office in what looks like a public address. In the first video his voice is replaced by that of comedian and impersonator, Jordan Peele. In the second, his voice is replaced by his own, old audio taken from footage that was filmed decades earlier while Obama was a student, in a much different role and setting.

What is scary is that both deepfakes are almost seamless in quality. Obama’s mouth and facial expressions move to form the words spoken by Peele, or those spoken by him as a student in late 70s. The only evidence of the deception is the low fidelity of the audio.

Deepfakes may become even more realistic with the arrival of digital voice impersonation, brought by Montreal startup LyreBird.  Lyrebird’s machine learning algorithm requires a small collection of words read aloud to train its neural network to produce an accurate model of your voice, which can form new sentences on its own.

It works by breaking down the audio of your voice into phonemes, linguistic building blocks, and then feeding them into a GAN, which again improves the fidelity of voice output over time, as it trains against itself, learns and improves.  An hour later Lyrebird’s algorithm can speak in your voice. Making statements you would not dream of speaking out loud.

The potential of deepfakes

The silliness of watching famous actors switch faces at award ceremonies masks the incredible power of the technology. Deepfakes gives someone the power to manipulate another person’s image and even voice when combined with digital voice impersonation. As with any powerful tool its potential is great; for good and for harm.

The benefits of deepfake technology is already realised in computer graphics where it improves the look of games and special effects. It’s cheap and accessible, offering studio level graphics to a wider number of people. Image and voice manipulation may benefit people that may face online discrimination due to the way they look or speak.

Admittedly deepfakes already have reputation for harm.  They first surfaced online in pornographic videos where the faces of female celebrities were superimposed on to the bodies of pornographic actors. In a December 2018 article for the Washington Post Scarlett Johansson, a victim of these malicious deepfakes, voiced her concern for those less famous.

Johansson pointed out that her fame provided a level of protection not afforded to other people. Johansson makes an important point. When you are famous you are accustomed to your image and voice being manipulated, often for comedic effect. The public is also accustomed to the image and voice manipulation of celebrity, hence we take a critical eye to any footage linked to a celebrity questioning its truth.

Would we use the same critical eye when watching our favourite YouTuber or a video of our friend or family member.

It would be easy for someone to create a malicious video of you making hateful statement or acting in illegal ways. All they would require is some video and audio of you speaking into a camera. The video sharing platform, Youtube, is a veritable mine for the future manufacture of deepfakes. Millions of people around the world have uploaded hours of video and audio content freely accessible to all.  Once another person has control of your image and voice, their power to make you appear to act in their wishes makes blackmail a serious risk. Malicious intent to harm your public image, through the release of embarrassing or illegal material is already of problem more easy facilitated by technology.

The use of deepfake technology enable blackmail as people are targeted, embarrassing or illegal behaviour is modelled and money is exchanged.

On a fundamental level once images and audio may be manipulated to the extent shown in deepfakes, technological deception is no longer perceptible by the human brain, seeing is no longer believing, at least online. Online is truth will die. Every video will be tainted with the hue of deepfake technology, precisely because we will not be able to decipher if it’s a real or not.

So what are we to do?

Deepfakes are trained on video footage, so be aware of sharing your image and voice online, to reduce easy access to training data. There’s little point in giving the sculptor more clay. Still for many of us our image and voice already has a place online in social media accounts or video sharing platforms such as Youtube. For many, our livelihoods, depend on our online public image. To prevent the most malicious impact of deepfakes to enable blackmail, enable the power of fame, by sharing video you film as widely as possible. Avoid giving access to your image in video to another party. Always keep a copy for yourself to be able to challenge any claims made by other parties.

Many online platforms have taken a hard stance on deepfakes, many porn sharing sites actively take them down and Reddit has banned communities that produce them.

There are also active communities of researchers trying to create algorithms to easily identify deepfakes, taking away their power to deceive the public.

Right now, it’s important for Government to raise awareness of the effectiveness of deepfakes to deceive the public as the technology improves in sophistication.

Currently there’s an online battle for truth, as think tanks and news agencies attempt to counter fake news stories that have become ubiquitous in certain communities online. Once fake new is supported by deepfake productions offering irrefutable evidence, the power of truth in other sources all but dies.

That is why the Buscemi-Lawrence video is powerful. It presents the extent of the deception. How we can all be deceived, as technology begins to surpass even our human senses / as technology begins to surpass our ability to distinguish what is real and what is not.


From blog to platform: Reni Eddo-Lodge’s ‘Why I’m…’

Yesterday I went to a discussion with Reni Eddo-Lodge about her book ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’. I read the book not so long ago and have since been a big fan of hers.

She shared with the audience what the year, since her book was released, had been like. She has been overwhelmed by the range of responses her writing has triggered. Be it her detractors judging the book by its cover, or rather its title, and completely misreading it as ‘why I hate white people’. Or people of colour finally finding their lived experiences and feelings reflected in a book. Or white people for whom the book triggered a sort of self-exploration and journey of remorse. Reni says she had to remove her contact form on her website in order to keep her own sanity; she couldn’t keep up with the avalanche of emails.

What was particularly powerful last night were the questions that came from the crowd. Near to every question that was asked was preceded by the person’s own story and experience with structural racism, discrimination or post-colonial vicissitudes. While Reni’s book started as a blog to vent her frustrations with the denial of structural racism and the lack of recognition for intersectionality in today’s world, it has now transformed beyond a piece of writing to become a platform for dialogue. It gives particularly people of colour a safe space to share their stories and for these to be acknowledged and recognised by others.

Reni also made powerful points about the lack of education on black history in the UK, and for me, her book was overwhelmingly educational with regards to events that have shaped the BAME community and the world they live in. And both the book and the discussion last night have motivated me to educate myself further. So my next steps are to explore the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton. If you haven’t read her book, I’d definitely recommend it, and for further reading, check our her bibliography.

My Whatsapp advent calendar

After my relatively negative experience with a mobile mental health service I had an idea of my own. Especially after a friend recently opened up about his challenges with mental health. Since it was December 1st I decided to create my own Whatsapp advent calendar*.

Using Whatsapp’s ‘broadcast list’ feature, I sent 16 friends of mine the first post. I only chose 16, because I was worried that more would be too difficult to handle.

Here are the messages I have sent so far.


December 1st:


December 2nd:


Now everyday until the 24th I will come up with a new positive post every day. My plan is for the messages to share happiness, boost confidence and reduce isolation. Giving tips and positive thoughts without being preachy!

This is an experiment. So I will see how the next few weeks go and maybe I could broaden it at a later stage! Learnings to follow!

* I assume the concept of advent calendar is pretty universally understood, but check here if you’re confused.

Send ‘HAPPY’ to 12345

Last weekend I saw an ad on the train about getting free mental health advice via SMS. All I needed to do was to send ‘TIPS’ to a shortcode.  I decided to sign up for two reasons:

1 I am quite a typical A-type neurotic millennial living in the big city. Stressed out is my default.

2 I am interested in mhealth (mobile health) and I was curious about the service itself.

So I texted TIPS.

And then nothing. Nothing happened. I checked my phone 4-5 times within the following hour ( I’m disillusioned about my phone habits, it was probably closer to 20 times). I didn’t get any confirmation that I had signed up. This was Saturday.

Monday morning I receive this text message. In the meantime I had completely forgotten about the whole thing.

Monday text.jpeg

I end up getting a text message every day..


until Friday I get this one.


And I’m like…


This was all a fundraising trick. I thought they were out to help me but instead they sneakily acquired my number, gained my trust but all they wanted was my money!

Don’t get me wrong, giving to charity gets a big thumbs up from me. However, I want to be part of the process. I don’t want to conveniently get something for free and then I am suddenly asked to give money. It’s comparable to the cards, coasters and pens I get from charities before Christmas. They send me free stuff I never asked for and then ask me to donate. Two things happen then:

  • I don’t want to donate anything because I feel blackmailed
  • I feel guilty for not giving and for the waste of stuff on me, but I cannot give into blackmail and now all I remember is that charity making me feel guilty!

When I got the final SMS, I felt tricked and foolish for believing that the service was there to help me.

Overall, I learned two key lessons:

  •  Feedback is not optional. It is essential to any service operating in this day and age, especially in relation to technology. How often do you pay attention to the ticks (Screen Shot 2016-12-04 at 08.33.21.png) on your messenger app ? This kind of feedback makes me feel satisfied and in control.
  • Don’t make an mhealth intervention a gimmick. I seriously believed that these text messages were going to make me feel better. They didn’t really and by Friday I understood why. They were sent by the Marketing department. There is a place for such interventions and when there are real people with real expectations on the other side, it’s dangerous to put it out without a comprehensive plan behind it.

Anyway, at least it encouraged me try my own little mood booster service. More on that later!

Work vs. family – how do men do it?

Today I was at a women and tech event. This isn’t the first one I’ve been to and I noticed that some of the usual questions came up. Questions about how to give young girls role models in tech, how to bring opportunities to primary and secondary schools, about what ‘in tech’ really means, until we eventually got to the question about balancing work and family life. The three women on the panel gave the usual kind of answers about improving support in the workplace, dealing with guilt, understanding it was ok to take some time out and so on. The two men on the panel stayed silent. I cheekily posted the following tweet, which was then picked up by the moderator.

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At first I was a bit embarrassed as my tweet was not a real question, rather a funny remark to highlight the fact that we rarely expect men to answer that question. Yet, the moderator decided to ask my question in the most sincere and matter-of-fact way that took the two men quite aback. Both their answers clearly showed they had never really thought about that question, let alone been asked it in public. They acknowledged that they didn’t do a great job in terms of their family life and got to the conclusion that society gave men leeway to be bad at balancing family and work life, by judging them less harshly.

It was quite eye opening, both for me and, I believe, the two men. In my opinion, asking women that work/life balance question tends to exacerbate the problem rather than solve it. Whenever I hear it, it makes me question of how I will be able to have a career and a family, how I will manage when my partner will be working, when the best moment for me to have kids is – even though it’s a conversation for me and my partner.

Many of these gender debates are too focused on highlighting the problems and not the solutions. There is a negative bias towards what doesn’t work, while we could try and learn from where and when it works – and constructing a dialogue together with men, rather than question of why we still can’t have it all.


I just watched Martha Lane-Fox’ Dimbleby Lecture – a bit late I know. I first downloaded it not really knowing whether I’ll watch beyond two or three minutes. However, I quickly found myself deeply enthused by this woman who brings such positive energy and radiance to a room. Her enthusiasm for digital and for her project “dot.everyone“ was palpable from the minute she started, and I needed to watch it all.

MLF is everything I look for in a role model, she is a strong beautiful woman in technology – someone with a passion and someone with the backbone to actually implement her ideas.

I was inspired by her story. Her passion for digital started when she was 25, about my age, with her first big venture: And it certainly didn’t end there. She goes on to talk about her latest big idea “dot.everyone”, an innovative public institution she imagines will propel the UK to the forefront of the digital age and address the major problems we face in the digital industry and to some extent in society.

She outlines three major issues this institution should tackle:

– how do we improve the understanding of the Internet at all levels of society

– how do we get more women involved in technology

– how do we tackle the genuinely new ethical and moral issues that the internet has created

I commend her idea and I do think it has great merit, yet I see it as somewhat paradoxical and she actually points to it in the lecture.

MLF talks about how Tim Berners-Lee “crucially […] decided not to patent his invention [the world wide web]. He made it free for everyone. The world owes him a debt for that supreme act of generosity and long-sightedness.” For her, like for many others, the fact that the Internet was made a common good very early on was a tremendous blessing. Indeed she refers to the “the original promises of the internet: openness, transparency, freedom, universality”.

Yet, Lane-Fox is saying we should make them a national asset. Even more, she is dreaming about how her idea could “make us the most digitally successful country on the planet and give us real edge”.

I believe that her strategy of making the UK better than others at digital represents an out-dated way of thinking – a way of thinking that still roams the halls of Westminster . It is stuck in the box of the nation state – and is definitely not prepare to think outside it. It chants ‘We as a country want to be better, we want to be the best!’

When you talk about the internet, you cannot reason like that anymore. Borders are not the same as they were last time “we became the powerhouse of the world“. The internet isn’t about seeing one country become better than others, it’s about the world as a whole improving and advancing. This time we have the chance to build a worldwide project. Yet MLF is talking about dot.everyone.UK not dot.everyone.

I forgive her, she is speaking to an audience that may not be ready for my concept of ‘dot.everyone’.

+ SocialGood UK: Adjusting to the rise of the millennial

On Friday 27th March the UK’s digital media enthusiasts came together for +SocialGood UK, a conference on how digital media and technology can be used for social good. The set of panels and conversations focussed on how this can occur both in the UK and around the World.

The topic of +Socialgood is very broad and good on the organisers (Mashable, the United Nations Foundations and BT) for getting speakers on a wide variety of topics and aspects of social good creation. Sadly too little time was available for questions – luckily we have the Internet and #2030NOW to keep us connected!

I won’t do a full recap of what was being discussed. Here are just a few overarching thoughts the discussions and presentations provoked in me.

At the heart of +SocialGood UK were millennials, how organisations, companies and political powers will eventually adapt to their needs and demands and how this process will to a large extent be underpinned by the importance of authenticity.

Millennials are shaping how the Internet is being used, especially through their, sometimes excessive, use of social media. For example, Joanna Geary from Twitter talked about the research they had done into elected politicians’ use of Twitter, which showed that nearly 80% of them are actually on the social network. However, if politicians are on a network that doesn’t mean they are also using it well – similar to the CEO of a company who decides they should ‘do twitter’ without thinking much about how to engage with the twitter crowd – many of them millennials.

Rosie Warin from Global Tolerance presented some of their research on what they call the “values revolution” looking at how many people care more about the fact that their job is meaningful than their salary – 44%. As much as 36% said that they would work harder if their company benefitted society. Even though these statistics say more about how people would like to see themselves rather than how many people have actually chosen meaning over salary, the interesting part of this research is that for millennials the stats are higher, 50% and 53% respectively. A sign of the ‘values revolution’. In the coming years, companies will have to pay more attention as to how they are giving back to society. It will be more than simple ‘philanthropic box-ticking’ – it will be about being an authentic organisation for which social good is weaved into the organisational structure.

The same applies to products. The ethical dimension of a product has become an important factor in customer decision-making. Global Tolerance found that 31% of people would pay more for ethically sources products, this number goes up to 38% amongst millennials, even though their age may also mean that they have lower purchasing power. With the rise of the millennial, we can expect a further increase in the shift towards ethically sourced products we are already experiencing. On that note, there is an interesting video by philosopher Slavoj Zizek*, who talks about the feel-good effect of ethical sourcing and the capitalist system. I think the video makes it clear that being satisfied with the value revolution isn’t enough, especially when it’s unclear whether it is actually changing the way our products are produced or whether it is reinforcing an existing capitalist system.

When it comes to the needs of the younger generation, BT CEO Gavin Patterson gave quite an interesting keynote speech launching the extension of BT’s initiative to teach primary school students coding skills. Knowing little about the subject, I was under the impression that “young kids these days grow up speaking HTML and Python as second languages, rather than French and German”. Patterson emphasised how young people are tech consumers –but they aren’t all tech literate. You can’t deny that coding is hugely encouraged in the UK compared to other countries. The UK government has been a firm advocate of increasing tech literacy amongst young people. This however does not mean that enough is being done – a number of teachers don’t have the skills to teach tech literacy and not all students have access to classes that really help them understand and engage with the technology.

Belinda Parmar from Lady Geek also made the critical point of the digital divide between genders. A particular quote of hers was from a girl student in a secondary school who stated she would rather pick up rubbish for a job than work in technology. Although I feel that statement doesn’t give credit to the men and women working in rubbish collection – it also shows that technology still isn’t cool amongst young girls – despite the efforts the fashion industry has put into the ‘geek chic’. This is a problem. 17% of UK tech jobs are held by women and a mere 23% of degrees in engineering, manufacturing and construction were awarded to women between 2000 and 2011. So it’s great to see organisations like Belinda’s trying to polish the image of tech and working in tech for young girls and to women. It has to be noted however, that the women probably outweighed the men in the audience at +SocialGood UK.

All in all, +SocialGood UK was an interesting eclectic day – I definitely didn’t touch upon all the points that were discussed – but you can find out more about the #2030NOW conversation here and on Twitter.

* Special thanks to Chris for introducing me to Zizek!

Why breastfeeding is everybody’s business

Today I read quite an interesting article about how  ‘Breastfeeding is a grey area for Ugandan mothers’. Namubiro’s article is from 2009 but still relevant for today.  She makes a very good point – which is also widely acknowledged – a lot of mothers in Uganda stop breastfeeding early, a lot of them exclusively breastfeed for only a few months, some give pre-lacteals. These practices, that could be improved according to WHO standards, have some role to play in child survival and child development.

For me, talking about breastfeeding is a dangerous territory, as we are quick to attribute responsibility to the mother – and putting mothers at risk of probably the worst accusation of ‘being a bad mother’.

From Namubiro’s article:

“Asked whether she breastfeeds exclusively, Ayio says she does. On further probing however, she reveals that she gives him cow milk once in a while. “I gave him cow milk only twice” she says defensively when friends around her laugh.”

“Ayio is doing better than her neighbour Sharon Apolot who has just fed her one-day-old baby on almost half a mug of sugar water.”

Both Ayio’s friends and to some extent the author are judging the mothers. To improve the nutritional status of newborns and toddlers it is important to empower mothers, but also their communities. Namubiro for example talks about the fact that “the best and most nutritious food is given to the father”. Infant feeding isn’t just the mother’s business- she needs an environment that helps her make the best choices for her baby!

While it is important to give every mother the information she needs to do the best thing for her baby (none of us is born the perfect mother, we all have to learn it!), there is more to improving breastfeeding practices, such as:

  • providing her environment with breastfeeding information – her mother-in-law, her mother, her partner, her sisters…

  • giving the mother the possibility to breastfeed at work and in public spaces

  • providing breastfeeding support in case of breastfeeding problems

  • making the first baby foods more affordable …

The difficult job of a social media manager in corporate social responsibility

This is one of Innocent’s latest campaign – and some of the comments it got.


Being a social media manager for corporate social responsibility is not always a fun job. You will have to deal with all sorts of comments, and have to respond to them in a very calm and composed way. A campaign like that does cause different types of reactions:

1. The ‘I-don’t-get-it’


2. The divergence

What better place to rant than in a comment on a CSR campaign?

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3. The Anti-corporation, anti-third-world-opportunism group

The only good response? Silence. Just don’t acknowledge them.

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4. And sometimes somebody is just genuinely interested!

once in a while, somebody cares about your company… kind of.

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Are tech gadgets only for men?

Judging from these two ads, you could definitely think that – 

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Nosh Video

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Galaxy Gear Video 

When looking at these two ads separately, you may not think much of it – they are funny ads both targeting men.

However, when you put the two example next two each, commonalities appear:

– Women are only in secondary roles – they are to be dated and to be pursued.

– The women never get to interact with the app or the smartwatch – I guess a woman does not want gadgets – they may be just too complicated for her…

– Also, these ads remind us of how superficial women are: Terrible food over dinner will lead to the end of a date (not actually the personality of the man). We are supposed to be impressed by a guy’s use of gadgets… and chose our partner on his ability to create a moment, because dating a loser who drops his glass is not possible?!

But I’m glad to read that we are now being thought of:

Designing The Next Generation of Wearables, with Women in Mind.