the deep fake threat hardly anyone discusses

listen up. get mad.

[Soundtrack: “Being a Woman” by Lake Street Dive]
PHOTO: One of my recent pieces of fan mail, as a reminder of what being a woman online is like.


I got angry on the radio the other day.

I was on a panel with the guy who created the deep fake videos of Tom Cruise that recently went viral on TikTok. The other guest was an expert in artificial intelligence and deep fake ethics. And then there was me, and I was furious.

Last week, the FBI warned that foreign adversaries like Russia and China might soon use deep fakes in their influence campaigns. “Foreign actors are currently using synthetic content in their influence campaigns, and the FBI anticipates it will be increasingly used by foreign and criminal cyber actors for spearphishing and social engineering in an evolution of cyber operational tradecraft,” reads the FBI’s alert.

Great. The FBI is finally publicly acknowledging a threat that the disinformation research and national security communities have been worrying about for the past three years. But like those communities, the FBI is warning about threats that have yet to materialize in a big way, with nary a word for those that already exist. I’m all for building awareness, so let me drop some facts:

  • Research by Henry Ajder shows Telegram channels with over 100,000 members have used a bot to generate nonconsensual nude images of at least 680,000 women for $1.25 each. The service only works on the female physique. How charming.

  • A 2019 report also by Ajder found that a staggering 96 percent of existing deep fakes feature female celebrities in nonconsensual pornography.

  • Celebrities aren’t the only women targeted; with photos culled from social media sites like Facebook and as little as $20, men can order nonconsensual porn videos of any woman they know or fancy from afar.

On Wednesday’s radio program, while the creator of the Tom Cruise deep fake waxed poetic about technology’s creative possibilities and he and our co-panelist warned about some of the ethical concerns involved, from bringing back the dead in digital form to the potential for false declarations of nuclear war, I stewed. These hypotheticals are important to consider, but we should not pat ourselves on the back for being proactive in discussing this threat when there is real harm being done to hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of women around the globe on a daily basis, and we’re doing nothing about it. These deep fake porn “services” are allowed to persist with little intervention from the law enforcement or social media networks’ policy shops. Given the anonymity of the internet, they say, it’s hard to track down the perpatrators. What if they’re in other counties, states, or countries? What does law enforcement do? Is a silly little fake porn video some man is using in his jack shack worth the resources investigation and prosecution would take if a woman is not being physically or materially harmed by it?

And that’s where the world fails us. The online and offline abuse and harassment of women is not just a challenge that affects women on an individual level. As I’ve written before, foreign adversaries use gendered and sexualized disinformation, including manipulated media, to denigrate women in politics and public life. Russia is particularly practiced at this, targeting Members of Parliament and activists in countries like Ukraine and Georgia, and disparaging American politicians like Hillary Clinton and Kamala Harris. Russian military propaganda outlet Zvezda recently wrote this about Vice President Harris, amplifying a well-trodden and false sexualized trope that dominated criticism of her during the campaign:

She embodies democratic ideals: freedom, equality, brotherhood, the fight for equal rights for men and women, protection of the oppressed. A country with such a vice president can only be envied. But how much truth is there in Kamala Harris' one in a million election tale? ... How many slaves did Kamala's great-grandfather have, though she claims to be the descendant of oppressed African Americans? How did having an affair at work help her advance her career?

With sexualized narratives affecting women across the political spectrum and around the world even without the widespread distribution of deep fakes, it’s not difficult to imagine what’s next. The use of digital tools to deprecate and silence women — from social media campaigns to online foreign propaganda efforts to deep fake porn bots — is not simply a women’s issue. It’s a national security issue. I have a sinking suspicion the first widely successful foreign influence campaign using a deep fake will be sexual in nature and will target a woman. The systemic misogyny that makes the world go ‘round means most people are all too willing to believe and endorse the narrative of the wayward woman, the Hester Prynne of the digital age. And the fallout from that — the target’s resignation or retreat from public life, the millions of women who will reconsider whether they want to be in a public facing role at all — is an existential problem for representative democracy.

So, I became the token angry lady on the radio program. I sensed that it elicited some discomfort from some of the men in the discussion. Being the token angry lady is increasingly part of my public image. I don’t care. I am angry. No, I am livid that women’s anger — about our right to safely walk on the streets, or our desire to do our jobs without being raped, or the mounting anti-Asian violence that has disproportionately affected Asian women, or the threat that online technologies pose to our psychological health, physical safety, livelihoods, and participation in the public sphere — is dismissed as “emotive” or not “temperate enough” when addressing it could help us solve problems that would make our countries more secure and our democracies stronger.

Rather than police womens’ reactions to the everyday aggression and violence we experience, let’s police the perpetrators of violence. Is that such a radical concept?