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Fake videos bring a new era of fake news

Read time 5min 00sec

This year will see a new level of malicious posts on social media, as hoax or fake videos herald a new low in fake news.

This was the word from Sylvia Papadopoulos, senior lecturer in the Department of Mercantile Law at the University of Pretoria, discussing online safety and security, at a Human Rights Day commemoration held by the Netherlands embassy in Johannesburg yesterday.

Papadopoulos pointed out that cyber bullying has taken a perilous turn that now presents itself in the latest trend of engineered fake videos.

"Fake videos are not only creating a new era of fake news, they are also a relatively new method of cyber bullying.

"Deepfake, an artificial intelligence (AI)-based technology, is used to create a combination of existing and sourced videos, resulting in a movie or a video that depicts a person or people performing actions that never occurred in reality.

"These videos can be created, for example, to show a person performing sexual acts they never took part in, putting words into a person's mouth, or showing them doing gestures that are out character."

Deepfakes are not lip-syncing videos that are obvious spoofs; the technology uses facial mapping and AI to produce footage that appears so near genuine that it becomes difficult to differentiate them from the real video clip.

Papadopoulos referenced the array of celebrity videos that have gone viral on social networking sites, showcasing sexually-explicit hoax content. Other videos depict politicians performing unreal sensational acts.

In September, a group of US lawmakers wrote a letter to national intelligence director, Dan Coats, asking his office to assess how Deepfakes could threaten US national security.

"By blurring the line between fact and fiction, Deepfake technology could undermine public trust in recorded images and videos as objective depictions of reality," they wrote.

Papadopoulos continued: "This is a very serious and very challenging form of cyber bullying, where the perpetrator is motivated by a phenomenon called 'online disinhibition' which is the lack of restraint they feel when communicating online in comparison to communicating in-person. They feel a sense of anonymity, but of course we know there is no such thing as anonymous online."

UK-based innovation foundation Nesta forecasts 2019 will be the year malicious Deepfake videos spark a geopolitical incident.

"We predict that within the next 12 months, the world will see the release of highly authentic-looking malicious fake videos, which could cause substantial damage to diplomatic relations between countries," says Nesta.

Discussing other forms of cyber bullying, Papadopoulos highlighted the scourge of trolling, the deliberate act of provoking a response through the use of insults or bad language online; cyber stalking by making real threats to someone's physical wellbeing or safety; and cyber harassment, a constant and intentional form of bullying, comprising abusive or threatening messages sent to a person.

Other acts of cyber bullying involve the unlawful distribution of genuine images without the consent of the subject, and online child pornography, where images of children involved in sexual activities are showcased or traded on the Internet.

Unfortunately, female Internet users, she added, are often subjected to more degrading, humiliating and often life-destructive behaviour than their male counterparts.

"While anyone can be a victim, studies indicate cyber bullying disproportionately affects women, with female victims exhibiting a similar range of mental health issues that are comparable to those of rape victims."

What the law says

While SA is applauded for having some of the most progressive policies regarding human rights and gender equality, we still have some way to go, as the current legal remedies are not without fault, asserted Papadopoulos.

"Litigation can become a very costly and lengthy affair in SA. By the time a resolution comes, the victim's reputation may have suffered irreparable harm."

With the intention of curbing some of these online crimes and regulating online content, government has drafted two new Bills: the Cyber Crimes Bill, previously known as the Cyber Crimes and Cyber Security Bill, and the Films and Publications Amendment Bill, which are inching closer to finalisation.

"Under both of these laws, non-consensual dissemination of Internet images, videos and any personal information is a criminal offence and the perpetrator could serve three years or more behind bars or face hefty fines, or both, when found guilty."

One option for victims is to sue for damages because publishing images and degrading content is often a defamation of character, she noted.

"Another option is to open a case of crimen injuria, which would involve reporting the incident to the police. Essentially, the accused should be criminally prosecuted for violating a victim's dignity."

She also pointed to the Protection from Harassment Act, which provides victims of all forms of harassment with a way to protect their rights.

"This Act introduces procedures that help the courts and the police to protect the rights of victims of harassment and allows them to apply for a protection order against any perpetrator."

Once implemented, the Protection of Personal Information Act will ensure a person or company that fails to safely secure, safely process or illegally distributes personal information can be held liable for a fine of up to R10 million, or face up to 10 years imprisonment, she concluded.

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