Anyone could be a victim of ‘deepfakes’. But there’s a reason Taylor Swift is a target | Jill Filipovic


Taylor Swift is having quite a month. The singer-songwriter saw her image in disgusting deepfake porn images that were circulated online, prompting a necessary and overdue conversation on how AI and deepfake porn is used to harass, humiliate, degrade, threaten, extort and punish (mostly) women. And then her boyfriend, the football player Travis Kelce, saw his team make it to the Super Bowl, which set off a wave of rightwing anti-Swift hysteria and conspiracy theorizing. The most powerful pop star in the world has everything going for her – and has also become an avatar for widespread anxieties about female power, sexuality and gender politics.

Deepfake porn brings up a whole host of moral, ethical, philosophical and legal questions. Those questions grow even more complicated when applied to celebrities. A famous 1988 first amendment free speech case in the US pitted the pornographic magazine Hustler against the homophobic and misogynist evangelical activist Jerry Falwell.

Hustler had published a parody ad featuring a photo of Falwell and a story of his “first time”, which involved Falwell and his mother copulating in the family outhouse. Falwell sued for libel. Hustler claimed it was clearly a parody no reasonable person would mistake as true, and the supreme court eventually sided with Hustler. The rules differ in the UK and other jurisdictions, but in the US there remains a broad first amendment right to mock and even publish false information about public figures.

Deepfake porn, though, is a different beast. It’s not parody, and the whole point is that it’s extremely realistic, difficult or impossible to differentiate from the real thing. And faked, nonconsensual porn videos aren’t the only deepfakes to be worried about. If anyone’s likeness can be digitally manipulated to say or do anything in a highly realistic video, the consequences are wide-ranging and unsettling to consider: imagine everything from world leaders on video making dangerous pronouncements to average citizens engaged in shocking and offensive behavior that could cost them their livelihoods or even lives, to someone who believes you’ve wronged them getting revenge by, say, making an explicit video featuring your young child.

Even if you’re not a hugely famous female celebrity, and even if you’re someone who generally plays by the rules and lives conservatively, deepfakes could come for you. And right now, there are troublingly few protections, and no federal legislation against deepfake porn, though some members of Congress have introduced bills to ban the sharing of deepfakes without consent of those depicted.

Some legal observers still argue that deepfake porn, and other deepfake videos, are generally protected by the first amendment. That is, to put it mildly, up for debate, and our laws are notoriously slow in evolving to address rapid technological change.

I won’t pretend to possess the legal expertise or individual wisdom to craft the kind of legislation that would both protect first amendment freedom of expression interests and crack down on dangerous and abusive deepfakes. But it is very obviously long past time that robust discussions on how to do just that were at the fore of public debate and discussion, including in Congress, in every state legislature and on the pages of every newspaper.

The incredible pace at which AI is developing should be of top concern, given the near-guarantee that it will indelibly shape our livelihoods, or social connections and nearly every aspect of our lives in the near future. Deepfakes are the tip of an enormous iceberg. And we’re already far, far behind in addressing the threat they pose.

Animating the current discussion of deepfake porn, though, is the growing and frankly bizarre rightwing hostility to Taylor Swift. The right is rife with Swift conspiracy theories, including that she’s a Pentagon asset, that she’s part of an election interference psy-op, that the Super Bowl is rigged, and that the Swift-Kelce relationship and his team’s recent victories are all a part of a broad plan to reinstate Joe Biden in office.

And many of these conspiracy theories aren’t coming from the lunatic fringe, at least insofar as many mainstream conservatives are lunatics but are not on the fringes – some of them have been disseminated by the former Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, Fox News hosts and other influential conservative figures.

The rightwing problem with Swift is part of a greater conservative hostility to a culture that conservatives feel has left them behind. While conservatives have in many ways captured American politics – dominating the US supreme court, taking over state legislatures and governorships, passing vastly unpopular far-right legislation including broad abortion bans – rightwing gender traditionalism, misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia, authoritarianism and religiosity have been generally rejected in the way people actually live and in the media Americans consume.

Swift is in many ways a uniquely potent embodiment of this dynamic. She’s an attractive Caucasian woman whose blond hair, blue eyes and country music roots once led white supremacists to turn her into an icon of Aryan womanhood (through no action of her own, to be clear), but who now is unmarried in her mid-30s – normal for many highly educated, successful and financially secure women living in large cities, but the sources of great consternation for conservatives who believe a woman’s chief duty in life is to submit to a man and start having babies in her teens or 20s.

There’s more: she uses her music to speak to the complex feelings of women and girls, and tells those same women and girls that she understands their confusion and longing but also sees their power. She clearly has the pretty normie liberal politics that are standard for women her age (pro-abortion-rights, pro-voting, anti-Trump, probably pro-Biden), but is also dating a man who is thriving in a sport that is particularly revered in conservative circles.

In contrast to a megastar like, say, Beyoncé, the conspiratorial right seems particularly incensed at Swift because she does exemplify at least some markers of “their” culture: she spent much of her early years in Tennessee, got her start in country music, initially sang about her longing for love and a traditional relationship, and is currently dating a white football player who also reads on first look as the golden boy of a Republican family.

But then Swift has her own mind. She does get-out-the-vote campaigns, she has backed Democrats over Republicans, she dates and goes out and has fun and refuses to romantically settle, she is wildly and unimaginably successful. And that incenses those on the far right who seem to believe that Swift is some sort of wayward daughter who owes them her submission – and whose appeal to young women may reinforce the more liberal choices of those conservatives’ own wayward progeny.

And so – instead of facing the reality that Swift is enormously popular because her music has wide appeal, and her dating life isn’t particularly unusual for an American thirtysomething, and that the Kansas City Chiefs are going to the Super Bowl because they played the game well, and that the Swift-Kelce relationship may indeed be one of mutual career benefit but would hardly be a productive or realistic use of any secretive federal intelligence agency’s resources – too many conservatives who simply cannot accept that their views and values are wildly out of step with the American norm are trawling around for some alternate explanation.

Those same conservatives are angry that the only way they can impose their unpopular views and values is by minority authoritarian rule, and seek to punish anyone whose liberalism has wider appeal.

This, to circle way back, poses a significant threat to the urgent necessity of reining in deepfakes, pornographic and non-pornographic alike. Swift being the face of deepfake porn has placed new attention on the matter, which is a good thing. But Swift is also a person who many on the right seek to humiliate, degrade and punish – the same aims as the creators of deepfake porn. And that shortsighted desire for misogynist cruelty may derail a bigger and more important project.

The good news is that these far-right actors are in the minority. The bad news is that they’ve captured much of the Republican party and the halls of American power, and could stall necessary action. But this is not an issue that has to be partisan. Deepfakes are a threat to all of us, not just pop stars or presidents. The worst actors in American life should not be the ones determining what the future looks like for the rest of us.

Now is the time to call on Congress and state legislators to act – not just on deepfake porn and not just for Taylor Swift, but on the perils of AI more broadly, and for a more secure future for every person on the planet.


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