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Amal Attar-Guzman: The Taylor Swift deepfake porn scandal highlights how dangerous AI can be

Commentary

AI is both a gift and a curse. On one hand, it has opened up a new world of possibilities and helped make everyday life easier, faster, and more efficient. On the other hand, it’s opened up Pandora’s box, letting loose a variety of negative, complex social outcomes that are quickly becoming difficult to contain or mitigate.  

Early in March 2023 I wrote about some of the under-discussed issues women have been facing as the result of these new and emerging technologies. One such issue that stood out to me was the rise of non-consensual deepfake pornography. As of December, deepfakes have risen exponentially, with researchers now predicting that there will be over 5.2 million deepfakes in 2024. 

So when it was time to make The Hub’s 2024 predictions, I decided to raise the alarm once again, predicting that deepfakes and AI technology would soon move to the forefront of Canadian public policy. With its exponential rise threatening democracy and its institutions and the recent case of deepfake child pornography of teenage girls in Winnipeg, the evidence now seems clear. Not only is this fast becoming a major technology story, it is now becoming a gender-based and societal issue at large.

What I did not expect was for my prediction to come true so soon, just a few weeks into 2024. Nor did I expect to see non-consensual deepfake pornography of Taylor Swift on my X feed. 

Now, I am not much of a Swiftie. But not only did I feel disgusted seeing those images on my social media account, I also felt a deep-seated rage seeing people immediately target and harass her. This visceral anger only got worse when I saw the alleged Canadian creator of these images starting to gloat and revel in his newfound online fame. What was even more heartbreaking was that as the backdrop to all this, Taylor Swift was dealing with a recent stalking case

Thankfully, fellow Swifties quickly rallied together to push X to take down these images. The company complied. Both X and Meta have put regulations in place to deal with these deepfake cases, and while they are not perfect, at least something is now there to deal with the issue head-on. 

Seeing this happen to Taylor Swift really puts things into perspective. If this A-list, worldwide celebrity and billionaire, who won multiple Grammys, accolades and sold billions of dollars in concert tickets, can be a target of non-consensual deepfake pornography, what about the rest of us women? 

Sadly, this is fast becoming a reality. Between 2022 and 2023 there was a notable 1,740 percent deepfake surge in North America, one of the highest reported around the world. Women are disproportionately affected. According to a 2023 study by Amsterdam-based company Sensity, 96 percent of deepfakes were non-consensual pornography depicting women.

This is fast becoming a fear for women from all backgrounds. Deepfakes are used to silence and shame women in the public eye and even in the private sphere. If they say what they think, stand up for themselves, or even go against the societal grain, one way or another, they can get punished by anyone, whether they know them or not, without remorse or recourse. No one is safe from this new form of sexual harassment, defamation, and public humiliation. 

While many on my X feed shared these same concerns, one perspective caught my attention. Jesse Brown, journalist and publisher of Canadaland, posted on X that while the situation was gross, policymakers need to be careful about legislating on these issues. As he put it: “[While Canada] need[s] laws against deepfake porn that tells convincing lies,” Swift’s case amounted to “horny fanfic” that “should not be a crime.” 

Brown’s comments attracted a negative reaction, including from me. I decided to listen to the Canadaland episode to see if there was a perspective I might be missing. After listening to the conversation, a couple of thoughts came to mind. 

First, with all due respect, I disagree with the notion that what happened to Taylor Swift was just “horny fanfic.” There is a huge difference between creating fanfiction of fictional characters and celebrities that are meant to celebrate them, versus creating degrading deepfake pornographic images. 

Intent is key. Generating deep fake porn of Taylor Swift wasn’t done to celebrate or even idolize her. It was done to humiliate and degrade her, encouraging people to harass her. If the same thing happened to politicians, journalists, or ordinary citizens, it would still be wrong and some sort of regulation and legal recourse would be needed. 

I also disagreed with the notion that because the deepfake pornographic images looked fake and not realistic—that it’s not a “convincing lie”— it’s not as big of a deal as realistic-looking deepfake pornography that might actually convince people that it’s real. Here’s the thing: even if someone is not completely recognizable, harm is still there. Deepfake porn is the modern-day pornographic drawing of a girl in a boy’s bathroom. It is a form of sexual harassment even if it “looks fake.” 

However, there was one point that Brown raised that was worthwhile. When it comes to regulating or even criminalizing deepfakes, we must be cognizant of the effects on freedom of expression. What about in cases of political satire, or even political messaging or advertising? How should we think about that? 

In such circumstances, a complete ban or extreme restriction of deepfakes would be an overstep. Already, we’ve seen some backlash to Meta’s policy regarding deepfakes, which saw its oversight board acknowledge that in some cases where media is manipulated for humour, parody, or satire, it “should be protected.” As Brown rightly asked, “If you cannot draw rude pictures of the elite, then are you truly free?” 

This screenshot made on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024, shows a Taylor Swift search error on social media platform X. X has blocked some searches for Swift as pornographic deepfake images of the singer have circulated online. (AP Photo)

In terms of Canadian policy and law, if future legislation does not strike the right chord, it could lead to a constitutional challenge. AI experts, policymakers, and legal scholars will need to ask themselves this question: how can public policy provide regulations on deepfakes that, if brought to a court of law, could survive a Charter challenge in terms of “reasonable limits”?

Perhaps the answer lies within current law regarding sexual harassment, defamation, and copyright law. Deepfakes and other AI-manipulated content that provide misinformation and disinformation with criminal and defamatory intent will need to be captured, while explicitly ensuring that cases of political commentary, advertisement, and satire aren’t subject to restrictions. Maybe in the latter’s case providing disclaimers will be needed to allow its promotion. 

These are not easy solutions. Which responsibilities and obligations should fall under the realm of social media platforms or the government needs to be explored and debated. And, no doubt about it, mistakes will be made. 

But regardless, it is clear that there needs to be some explicit public policy and legal recourse to deal with the issue head-on—one where freedom of expression is preserved, but as importantly, people are prioritized and protected.

Patrick Luciani: The intellectual roots of why so many support Hamas’ terror attacks

Commentary

In the latest Hub book review, Patrick Luciani reviews The Rebel’s Clinic: The Revolutionary Lives of Frantz Fanon by Adam Shatz (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023) and traces the connections between the writings of Frantz Fanon, the academic embrace of anticolonialist theory, and the support of violence and terror by some on the Left.

If we want to understand the violence perpetrated by Hamas and those who supported it, we have to understand the political motivation behind the attack. For that, we need to understand the mind of Frantz Fanon. 

Not a name known by the general public, but certainly known in the academy in post-colonial studies and political theory. A new biography by Adam Shatz’s beautifully written and well-researched book, The Rebel’s Clinic, gives us a highly literate account of Fanon’s life that brings us closer to understanding how Fanon became an icon of the left and the justification for violence in his classic work, The Wretched of the Earth, published just before he died of leukemia at the age of 36 in 1961. 

Fanon’s book did not go unnoticed. It was widely translated and “cited worshipfully” by radical movements, including the Black Panthers, the Black Consciousness Movement in South Africa, Latin American guerillas, Islamic revolutionaries of Iran, and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. 

Born in Martinique in 1925, Fanon fought for the French against the Nazis in 1944 as a French citizen. Despite being a decorated soldier, he realized his blackness when white French women refused to dance with him in celebration after the war. His 1952 book Black Skin, White Masks chronicles the hardships of a Black man putting on disguises to survive in a white world. 

Fanon went on to study medicine in Lyon and practiced psychiatry in the French colony of Algeria. There, he treated the victims of the struggle for freedom and realized that violence lies at the heart of colonialism. These themes would consume the rest of his life. 

For Fanon, physical violence and severe mental and emotional harm define the natural state of colonial rule. This violence is further compounded by the reduction of the native to a lower form of a human. He saw a Manichean world split between good and evil with no chance of mutual understanding, compromise, or peaceful coexistence. The colonizer is “the corrosive element, destroying all that comes near him.” Under these conditions, violence is a natural and logical reaction to the violence that the colonialists bring to their colonies. 

Shatz’s biography shows that Fanon truly believed in the regenerative potential of violence and the mass killing of Europeans as beneficial medicine for the colonized; further, it would liberate the white man from his awful identity. In his famous introduction to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre aggressively supported the need for violence, saying, “To shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone: there remains a dead man and a free man.” Fanon went on to serve the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) as an ambassador throughout Africa while raising funds for the liberation of Algeria. 

Independence may bring some form of moral compensation, but benefits are often short-lived. That was the case after Algeria became independent in 1962, a year after Fanon’s death. His dream of a free, democratic country fell apart under radical Islamism. Citizenship was restricted to Muslims only while almost one million pieds noirs left, along with most of its Jewish population that had been in Algeria since the times of the Romans. The misery for Algeria did not end there as tens of thousands of Algerian peasants were slaughtered for their association with the French, the very people Fanon idolized in leading the revolution. Fanon’s vision of a “new man” rising from the ashes would have to wait another time. 

A young boy holds up a Hamas flag as people gather during a pro-Palestinian protest in Istanbul, Turkey, Friday, Nov. 24, 2023. Francisco Seco/AP Photo.

What didn’t wait was the zeal of revolutionary groups around the world, which took up Fanon’s passion for using violence to justify their cause for liberation, especially in the Middle East, where Zionism is now seen as the new settler colonialism. In a world split between settler-colonized and post-colonized nations, violence seems acceptable and justified after Fanon who gave if not his permission then a rationale for indiscriminate destruction. In Canada, the burning of dozens of churches was covered by the media as a natural reaction to the rumours of mass graves of First Nation children at residential schools. 

Not all intellectuals concerned with the liberation of African nations sided with Fanon’s methods of political salvation. Hannah Arendt’s essay “On Violence” was a direct response to Fanon’s vogue appeal to New Left radicals. She made the point that violence is not power but the absence of it. Through his writings on anti-colonialism,  Albert Memmi—a Tunisian Jew and novelist and one-time supporter of Fanon—came to realize that the struggle for meaning is not found solely in the social and political struggle against colonialism but also in the need for “inner emancipation,” a message hardly conducive to modern post-colonial studies. 

But after five decades of post-colonial studies and courses on French existentialist thought, moral relativism, anti-western and Eurocentrism, Marx and Gramsci, historicism, and critical race theory (an idea inspired by Fanon’s writing) many students were uncritically conditioned to side with the terror of Hamas.