Sex, lies and politics
As deepfake technology spreads, expect more bogus sex tapes of female politicians
Adulterer, pervert, traitor, murderer. In France in 1793, no woman was more relentlessly slandered than Marie Antoinette. Political pamphlets spread baseless rumours of her depravity. Some drawings showed her with multiple lovers, male and female. Others portrayed her as a harpy, a notoriously disagreeable mythical beast that was half bird-of-prey, half woman. Such mudslinging served a political purpose. The revolutionaries who had overthrown the monarchy wanted to tarnish the former queen’s reputation before they cut off her head.
She was a victim of something ancient and nasty that is becoming worryingly common: sexualised disinformation to undercut women in public life. People have always invented rumours about such women. But three things have changed. Digital technology makes it easy to disseminate libel widely and anonymously. “Deepfake” techniques (manipulating images and video using artificial intelligence) make it cheap and simple to create convincing visual evidence that people have done or said things which they have not. And powerful actors, including governments and ruling parties, have gleefully exploited these new opportunities. A report by researchers at Oxford this year found well-organised disinformation campaigns in 70 countries, up from 48 in 2018 and 28 in 2017.
Consider the case of Rana Ayyub, an Indian journalist who tirelessly reports on corruption, and who wrote a book about the massacre of Muslims in the state of Gujarat when Narendra Modi, now India’s prime minister, was in charge there. For years, critics muttered that she was unpatriotic (because she is a Muslim who criticises the ruling party) and a prostitute (because she is a woman). In April 2018 the abuse intensified. A deepfake sex video, which grafted her face over that of another woman, was published and went viral. Digital mobs threatened to rape or kill her. She was “doxxed”: someone published her home address and phone number online. It is hard to prove who was behind this campaign of intimidation, but its purpose is obvious: to silence her, and any other woman thinking of criticising the mighty.