Clementine Ford: Revenge-porn deepfakes are a threat to us all

The internet has vastly expanded the ways abusers can seek to impact and destroy the lives of people they deem worthy of their harm, and the situation only seems to be getting worse.

A recent article in the Washington Post highlighted the use of ‘deepfake’ technology and its influence on image based exploitation – more commonly referred to as ‘revenge porn’.

The use of photoshop to doctor images is nothing new, but ‘deepfakes’ are able to go one step further, using machine learning technology to generate fabricated still or moving images based on pre-existing ones.

The tech itself has already been used to create convincing political propaganda, but it’s increasingly also being harnessed by anonymous internet users to exploit and abuse women for either profit or malice (and sometimes a combination of the two).

Basically, the bodies of porn performers in pre-existing pornographic images or videos can now be doctored to insert the heads and faces of any woman the creator chooses.

Clementine Ford on the alarming world of deepfakes.

Pornographic deepfakes most typically feature the faces of celebrity women, but they’re increasingly also being generated as a form of revenge. To be clear, there’s no motivation that makes this practice in any way acceptable, but its potential for use in the latter form makes it particularly frightening.

These are not ‘dark fantasies’. They are very real attacks against girls and women

As Drew Harwell writes, “The videos have also been weaponised disproportionately against women, representing a new and degrading means of humiliation, harassment and abuse. The fakes are explicitly detailed, posted on popular porn sites and increasingly challenging to detect.”

One woman who’s experienced this abuse firsthand is Anita Sarkeesian.

The popular feminist critic has long been the target of misogynist trolls and insecure boys and men online, with one of the earliest iterations of this being an animated game that invited users to beat her to a pulp.

Last year, she also became the subject of a deepfake hardcore video posted on Pornhub that to date has been viewed more than 30,000 times.

Her crime? Existing, apparently.

Harwell quotes one anonymous internet user known as “Hypercyberpastelgoth” who argued, “She attacked us first… She just had to open her smarmy mouth.”

In the case of Sarkeesian, “opening her smarmy mouth” amounts to little more than having been a vocal and considered critic of how pop culture and gaming in particular marginalises women.

Yes, the same men who frequently throw around words like ‘snowflake’, ‘politically correct’ and ‘butthurt feminazis’ are still so incapable of listening to a woman criticise their sacred cows that they will feverishly embrace retribution that seeks to humiliate and sexually degrade her.

As Sarkeesian said in response, “It’s used as a weapon to silence women, degrade women, show power over women, reducing us to sex objects. This isn’t just a fun-and-games thing. This can destroy lives.”

But even this extends beyond twisted notions of revenge. There’s a market being created to service the desires of misogynists operating in secret online, and it speaks not only to the depravity with which many of them view women, but also the gleeful embrace of dehumanisation that certain parts of the internet give rise to.

Photo: Getty 

Harwell quotes one deepfake creator known as “Cerciusx”, who argued that manipulated pornographic content like this is about fulfilling a ‘dark fantasy’. “Most guys never land their absolute dream girl,” he said. “This is why deepfakes thrive.”

Yes, this may be a specialised area of technology. Most people are probably still unaware of the existence of deepfakes. But the popularity of sites like 8chan and Voat amongst boys and young men in particular should cause deep concern, especially as they are often the hosting portals for content like this.

Women have always been charged with monitoring their own behaviour to somehow ‘prevent’ abuse like this happening to us. But it’s time we start monitoring the behaviour of men to try and stop them from creating a market for it.

Image based exploitation driven by young men and using real (if private) photographs has already resulted in extensive harm being perpetrated against young women, but as technology like this becomes increasingly available it will only get worse.

So how do we combat it when controlling the tech itself is impossible? The only real option is to continue to dismantle toxic ideas around sex, misogyny and gender relations.

These are not ‘dark fantasies’, as Cerciusx and his ilk want to believe. They are very real attacks against girls and women, spawned from the belief that we exist to service men’s needs and somehow atone for the disenfranchisement they falsely believe they experience at our hands.

This kind of behaviour relies on the dehumanisation of others, so it’s only in emphasising to young men the humanity of women that we can hope to change attitudes that lead to its creation.

Women have always been charged with monitoring their own behaviour to somehow ‘prevent’ abuse like this happening to us. But it’s time we start monitoring the behaviour of men to try and stop them from creating a market for it.

If you or someone you know is suffering from sexual or domestic abuse, don’t suffer in silence, call 1800 RESPECT any time of day or night.