Sitting before the Stars and Stripes, another flag pinned to his lapel, former president Barack Obama appears to be delivering an important message about fake news — but something seems slightly...off.
“We’re entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time — even if they would never say those things,” says “Obama,” his lips moving in perfect sync with his words as they become increasingly bizarre. “So, for instance, they could have me say things like, I don’t know, [Black Panther’s] Killmonger was right! Or Ben Carson is in the sunken place! Or, how ’bout this: Simply, President Trump is a total and complete dipshit.”
As the video soon reveals, the man speaking is not the former commander-in-chief, but rather Oscar-winning filmmaker Jordan Peele with a warning for viewers about trusting material they encounter online.
“This is a dangerous time. Moving forward, we need to be more vigilant with what we trust from the internet,” says Peele as Obama.
The PSA for the Internet Age was a project first imagined by Peele and BuzzFeed CEO Jonah Peretti, the filmmaker’s brother-in-law.
The pair wanted to warn the public about the rapidly evolving threat posed by digital misinformation after discussions between them about new technologies and the erosion of a shared reality.
“I always enjoy talking with Jordan, and he’s actually very interested in news and the news business and understanding how information spreads,” said Peretti. “We were talking about deepfake [artificial intelligence] that can create things like that guy who put his wife’s face on Anne Hathaway's body for a late-night interview.”
The Peele video comes after BuzzFeed News reported in February on what the future of fake news could look like: “a slew of slick, easy-to-use, and eventually seamless technological tools for manipulating perception and falsifying reality, for which terms have already been coined — ‘reality apathy,’ ‘automated laser phishing,’ and ‘human puppets.’”
Aviv Ovadya, a technologist who predicted that misinformation would spread during the 2016 election, told reporter Charlie Warzel that technology is advancing to allow users to distort audio or video and make it seem real. Such tools could be used to create pornographic videos with celebrities’ faces superimposed or have world leaders appear to make outrageous or potentially dangerous statements.
“What happens when anyone can make it appear as if anything has happened, regardless of whether or not it did?” Ovadya told BuzzFeed News.
For example, University of Washington computer scientists last year produced a video of Obama that demonstrated a program they had developed capable of “turning audio clips into a realistic, lip-synced video of the person speaking those words.”
Peretti said he wanted to use BuzzFeed as a platform for the PSA because of BuzzFeed News’ extensive past reporting on fake news.
“We’ve covered counterfeit news websites that say the pope endorsed Trump that look kinda like real news, but because it’s text people have started to become more wary,” he said. “And now we’re starting to see tech that allows people to put words into the mouths of public figures that look like they must be real because it’s video and video doesn’t lie!”
For the project, Peretti enlisted BuzzFeed video producer Jared Sosa, who was able to manipulate and digitally alter the footage of Obama to a script written and performed by Peele.
The fakery was built using Adobe After Effects, a readily available piece of video software, and FakeApp, an artificial intelligence program that made headlines in January when it was used to transplant actor Nicolas Cage’s face into several movies in which he hadn’t appeared.
Sosa first pasted Peele’s mouth over Obama’s, then replaced the former president’s jawline with one that moved with Peele’s mouth movements. He then used FakeApp to smooth over and refine the footage — a rendering that took more than 56 hours of automatic processing.
“What I learned from this whole thing is that while it will still require a good deal of human intervention, this kind of thing is not only possible but going to get a lot better,” Sosa said.
Peele, who last month won an Oscar for his film Get Out, memorably impersonated Obama on multiple occasions on his Comedy Central show Key & Peele with Keegan-Michael Key.
The PSA ends with Peele urging people to “stay woke” by being vigilant to media sources. “It may sound basic,” Peele says as Obama, “but how we move forward in the Age of Information is gonna be the difference between whether we survive or whether we become some kind of fucked-up dystopia.”
Peretti, who cofounded the Huffington Post before launching BuzzFeed, said he remains optimistic about the future of the internet, but said media literacy and trusted reporters “will be more important than ever."
“I think by and large the internet has been amazingly beneficial to the world and to democracy,” he said, “and simultaneously it’s always had a dark side that’s objectionable, with people who are either trolls or hackers or scammers or politically motivated.”