I Made A Deepfake To Promote Positive Masculinity

The potential dangers of synthetic media have everyone up in arms, but could it be a force for good?

In early 2018, Nicolas Cage was everywhere. Well, not "everywhere" in a literal sense. While his physical body was holed up in an audio booth for the distinguished production of Teen Titans Go! to the Movies, his face was all over the internet.

People began to notice when clips of the actor performing in classic movies like Raiders of the Lost Ark, Terminator II, and Dr. No began to surface online. You probably don't need to consult his IMDB to know that he was in none of these films. And yet there he was—holding the Staff of Ra, chasing after young John Conor, and playing baccarat in Monte Carlo.

At the time, these clips presented an air of magic and mystery (how the f*$& did they do that?). Today, however, the technology that enables deepfakes (deep learning) is more widely understood.

The Nic Cage-O-Rama was a reasonably benign application. However, dozens of tech influencers, academics, and journalists have highlighted the many potential dangers of synthetic media (fake news, harassment, fraud, espionage, et al.).

I share their concerns. However, after reading several articles that articulated a more positive outlook (1, 2, 3), I began to think about ways that deepfakes could be used to share helpful messages about modern masculinity.

Learning To Make My Own Deepfake

The first question you're probably asking yourself is, how hard is it to make one? Well, I can tell you that it is shockingly easy. With just a little Googling, I found an article on The Verge in which the author created a deepfake in a few hours using code published by researchers in Hyderabad, India.

I wrestled with it for the better part of a day. But with a little bit of technological elbow grease, I eventually figured it out*. Unlike the face-grafting app used to make the Nic cage videos, the Indian team's machine-learning software allows you to sync an audio file with a separate video of another person's lips.

When I began considering ways to apply this, I immediately thought about actor Justin Baldoni’s powerful TED Talk about masculinity from 2017. In the presentation, Baldoni offers a clarion call to men to stop trying to be "man enough" and, instead, to lean into the power of vulnerability.

His delivery is both authentic and moving, so I knew it would make an excellent base from which to build. From there, I began brainstorming who might serve as an unexpected vessel for this type of message.

I immediately thought of politicians, Trump in particular. Regardless of what people think about the president from a political standpoint, few would disagree that he's not one to let down his guard. In fact, he's consistently worried about appearing weak.

However, a mentor expressed concern when I shared a rough cut of Trump lip-synced to Baldoni’s speech. “I’m not a fan of using deepfakes in a political context,” he said. The reason, he explained, was that even if I think the message is clear (imagine if our president was a good role model for men), many misconstrue its intent.

For example, some may listen to the video without sound and attribute these healthy statements to Trump himself. I quickly realized that I needed to scrap the idea because the current political arena is so radioactive, that is the last thing I would want to happen.

So I went back to the drawing board, thinking again about the Nic Cage videos. I noticed that many of the characters used by the original creator reinforced notions of hyper-masculinity (Bond, Indiana Jones, etc.). I realized that the same context would serve as an interesting backdrop for Baldoni’s message.

I settled on using macho film icons from the past few decades (Bond, Rambo, Scarface, etc.), effectively creating an alternate media universe in which they embrace vulnerability rather than avoid it. I think few would argue that movies have long influenced how we think about masculinity. And I hope this clip underscores how they could offer new meaning to our collective understanding of what it means to be a man.

Other Potential Applications of Synthetic Media

I'll let you be the judge as to whether this filmic forgery is compelling or not. At the very least, it’s an interesting example of the potential for synthetic media. But there are many others.

Last year, Synthesia, a deep-learning software company, co-produced a video featuring David Beckham speaking in nine different languages about the urgent need to eradicate malaria.

Many video platforms do a great job dubbing content (Netflix) or providing translated text (TED). However, this forces the brain to work harder to absorb a message. The technique used in the Malaria Must Die campaign has the potential to mitigate this kind of cognitive friction which can interfere with how campaigns spread.

Justin Baldoni's TED Talk has already racked up more than 6m views on the TED platform alone. Imagine if it wasn't just translated, but actually spoken in 30+ languages. How much more impact could it have?

Earlier this year, HBO produced a documentary called Welcome to Chechnya which focused on a group of activists risking their lives to confront the ongoing anti-LGBTQ persecution in the region. Rather than blurring out their faces, the filmmakers used deepfake technology to keep their sources safe.

The face of the person in the Youtube thumbnail above actually belongs to a woman who volunteered her likeness for the purposes of the film.

Functionally, this is no different from past solutions used to protect privacy. But like the language lip-syncing example above, I think it makes the media just a bit more engaging. You can identify more with a character whose face you can see, making the overall film more memorable and thus likely to be remembered and shared.

The application here is pretty obvious. This form of engaging anonymity affords protection to those who want to speak out without fear of retribution. In the context of masculinity, that could include a variety of groups such as, men defecting from extreme groups in America (e.g. The Proud Boys) or those living in societies that accept a narrow definition of masculinity (e.g. Saudi Arabi, Tanzania, etc.)

Soon after Nic Cage's face took over the internet, the Scottish company, CereProc, released an audio re-creation of the speech that JFK was meant to give shortly after his assassination. A year later, the Dalí Museum in Florida took this approach a step further, using over 1,000 hours of machine learning to bring the iconic artist back to life.

Imagine using this technology to breathe new life into the departed voices who’ve influenced the way we understand masculinity (for better or for worse): James Baldwin, Teddy Roosevelt, and many, many more. We could engage with their thinking on a new footing, and offer the next generation more access to insights from the past.

Lastly, recent years have seen the rise of "virtual influencers" like Lil-Miquela, the computer-generated Instagram and YouTube popstar. And while, strictly speaking, she's not a deepfake (videos are created using well-styled motion graphics), the LA-based company (Brud) that manages the online character certainly has A.I. ambitions.

Lil-Miquela also has a male counterpart named Blawko. Aside from his twinkling eyes and terrible tattoos, Blawko’s face is always covered (even before COVID). His classic pose is mugging for the camera, but he occasionally ventures into the emotional, even if only to show off his good looks.

therapy lady told me to confront my demons head-on
December 29, 2019

His 153k Instagram following pales in comparison to Lil-Miquela's 2.7m. However, that's still a small army of Gen-Z guys absorbing his macho performance. With just a few tweaks to this caption, he could (earnestly) promote the value of therapy (no doubt a message the male community needs). And like that, we'd have ourselves a stylish and relevant mouthpiece for positive masculinity.

Despite the positive cant of this piece, I will say that I have no misconceptions about the dangers of synthetic media. There are many bad actors that will use it to cause irreparable harm. But there are also many good people thinking through ways to help keep us safe.

I think it’s also important to remember that Plato lamented the written word. Many more fretted over the rise of print. Synthetic media is just another tool, and as is the case with all technology, it all comes down to intent.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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*The tool on the Wav2Lip website didn't work for me (or the author of the piece in The Verge), so I used the Google Colab Notebook provided by the developers on their GitHub page. It was pretty tricky until I found this Youtube video. The Google Colab process requires that you grant access to files on your GDrive. If you decide to experiment with this method, I highly recommend that you consider the security implications. You are granting access to all the files on your GDrive. To be extra safe, I worked off of an empty GDrive that I have on a Gmail account I rarely use.

About The Mandate Letter

I use this newsletter as a journal to work through my ideas and collect examples of broader trends that reflect how masculinity is evolving in culture. I would very much appreciate your input. If you come across interesting examples of this trend or others, please email me tips at Jason [@] jasonrogers.co. If you're reading this in your inbox, just hit reply, and your response will go directly to me. Also, keep up with me on Twitter & Instagram or text me at 310-299-9363.