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On November 30, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao pinned a picture on his Twitter profile. In it, a soldier stands on an Australian flag and grins madly as he holds a bloody knife to a boy's throat. The boy, whose face is covered by a semi-transparent veil, is carrying a lamb. Next to the picture, Zhao tweeted: “Shocked by the murder of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts and urge (sic) to hold them accountable. "
The tweet refers to a recent announcement by the Australian Armed Forces that found "credible information" that 25 Australian soldiers were involved in the killings of 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners between 2009 and 2013. The picture is supposed to show an Australian soldier about to slit the throat of an innocent Afghan child. Explosive.
Unless the picture is fake. On closer inspection, it's not even very convincing. It could have been put together by a Photoshop novice. This image is a so-called cheapfake, a medium that has been roughly manipulated, edited, incorrectly labeled or incorrectly contextualized in order to spread disinformation.
The Cheapfake is now at the heart of a major international incident. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said China should be "deeply ashamed" and called for an apology for its "disgusting" image. Beijing has refused, instead accusing Australia of "barbarism" and attempting to divert public attention from alleged war crimes committed by its armed forces in Afghanistan.
Two important policy lessons can be drawn from this incident. The first is that Beijing approved the use of a cheapfake by one of its top diplomats to actively spread disinformation on Western online platforms. China has traditionally exercised caution on such matters in order to present itself as a benevolent and responsible superpower. This new approach is a major departure.
The Cheapfake is now at the heart of a major international incident.
In a broader sense, however, this battle also shows the growing importance of visual disinformation as a political instrument. Over the past decade, the proliferation of manipulated media has changed political realities. (For example, consider the cheapfakes that catalyzed a genocide of Rohingya Muslims in Burma or contributed to the spread of disinfection.) Now that global superpowers openly share cheapfakes on social media, what prevents them (or other actors) from Do they employ more sophisticated visual disinformation, how does it arise?
For years journalists and technologists have warned of the dangers of “deepfakes”. By and large, deepfakes are a kind of “synthetic medium” that has been manipulated or created by artificial intelligence. They can also be seen as the "superior" successor to Cheapfakes.
Technological advances simultaneously improve the quality of visual disinformation and make it easier for everyone to generate. As it becomes possible to create deepfakes via smartphone apps, almost anyone can create sophisticated visual disinformation for almost free.
Deepfake warnings peaked ahead of the US presidential election this year. For months, politicians, journalists and scientists discussed how to counter the perceived threat. In the run-up to the vote, lawmakers in Texas and California even preventively banned the use of deepfakes to influence elections.