Curb deepfake velocity, vulnerability and viciousness

Deepfakes can act as a megaphone for misinformation, feeding echo chambers and confirmation biases. (HT_PRINT)
Deepfakes can act as a megaphone for misinformation, feeding echo chambers and confirmation biases. (HT_PRINT)

Summary

  • We must stop their spread, keep people from falling for them and deploy the law to deter their ugly use as weapons.

Trust is at the core of the diffusion of any innovation in any sector, particularly so in the case of technology. If this trust is compromised, diffusion will fail, no matter how useful it is. In today’s age of digitally generated deepfakes, the old adage “seeing is believing" is under siege.

Trust erosion: While any technology can be misused, what sets deepfakes apart is their rapid spread (velocity) enabled by social media platforms and the human tendency to believe what one sees (vulnerability), causing harms that can be severe (viciousness). Women and children face significant psychological distress as targets of deepfake depictions, some of which are pornographic. 

Deepfakes violate privacy and publicity rights, as seen in the Anil Kapoor vs Simply Life India case last year at the Delhi high court. The threat has vast scope. Institutions like the judiciary face potential manipulation with fabricated evidence, making it harder for courts to discern the truth and raising the chilling possibility of wrongful convictions. Trials getting bogged down as parties contest the authenticity of evidence could erode public trust in the legal system.

Deepfakes also threaten user-verification methods such as facial recognition, which is a worry for a country like India that’s reliant on biometric identification for critical services, financial transactions and more.

Perhaps the most worrying aspect is their impact on democratic discourse and practices. Deepfakes can act as a megaphone for misinformation, feeding echo chambers and confirmation biases. The World Economic Forum’s 2024 risk report labelled mis- and dis-information the most critical global risk, especially for poll-bound countries. 

Political sabotage is frighteningly easy if deepfakes are used as weapons to discredit candidates. The proliferation of manipulated content breeds scepticism, with plausible deniability made easier for all video clips, even real ones, that may lead to a collapse of trust.

Current rules: India lacks laws specific to deepfake content. Sections 66D and 66E of the IT Act penalize impersonation and unauthorized publication of private images, while Sections 67, 67A, and 67B prohibit the transmission of obscene material. However, they fall short in addressing the broader challenge of identifying perpetrators and preventing the dissemination of harmful deepfake content. 

The newly enacted Digital Personal Data Protection Act could have been more impactful had “loss" as defined in Section 2 (P) included reputational loss besides financial. Section 8(5) obliges data fiduciaries to safeguard data from breaches. This could necessitate stricter measures like disabling private-media downloads or curbing ways in which content is shared on platforms. Data fiduciaries also need to notify individuals of any data breach. Section 3, which eases the law’s provisions if an individual publicly shares personal data on social media through a blog, etc, needs to be interpreted strictly.

Traceability, vital to combat fake news and hate speech, remains a contentious issue, as evident in the ongoing case between WhatsApp and the government. Although Rule 4(2) of the 2021 IT (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) mandates ‘significant social media intermediaries’ to enable the identification of originators of information on the orders of a court or another competent authority, WhatsApp and its parent Meta have contested this rule, citing privacy concerns and arguing that the platform’s end-to-end encryption would be breached.

Way ahead: Regulation can help India ensure the responsible use of technology and retain the trust of users in tech-enabled systems.

First, we must emphasize that while free speech is a fundamental right, ‘freedom of reach’ is not. Social media platforms and intermediaries must bear responsibility for curbing deepfake dissemination. This could mean limiting the number of times such content can be re-shared or crackdowns on bots that amplify misinformation.

Second, tech developers could be mandated to incorporate consistent labelling features that allow artificial content to be readily identifiable, an approach aligned with the Union IT ministry’s 15 March advisory. The urgency of consistent labelling standards across all major platforms should nudge them to move quickly on self-regulation in the interest of corporate digital responsibility—an idea now in need of legal backing. Mandatory user verification for content creation can also be explored. This would help establish a trail of accountability, aiding in tracing the origin of deepfakes.

Finally, we must address the human cost of deepfakes. Victims need a clear path to justice, including takedown requests to platforms, identification of perpetrators and legal recourse aimed at taking perpetrators to task. Besides, psychological support services are essential to help individuals cope with trauma in cases involving vulnerable citizens. 

As with a recently proposed UK law that criminalizes the very creation of non-consensual sexually explicit deepfakes, we need comprehensive legislation to deter criminal abuse. Beyond taking legislative measures, we must invest in media literacy efforts and fostering responsible digital citizenship, so as to equip individuals with what they need to critically evaluate online content and identify deepfakes.

To reaffirm trust in the digital sphere so that we can continue to benefit from its huge positive externalities, tech developers, platforms, civil society organizations and the government must work together.

These are the author’s personal views.

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