Fifty-one years ago this week, the first moon landing took place. Two astronauts from Apollo 11 walked around on the lunar surface for a couple of hours, changing space exploration forever.
Most people around the world accept this statement as truth, but there has always been an underbelly of society who (wrongly) think the moon landing in 1969 never happened. A new project shows the danger of how easy it is to spread fake news, through the power of a video related to the first moon landing.
President Richard Nixon famously had a draft speech prepared by aides in case Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin never made it back from the moon. Dubbed the “disaster” speech, it includes the famous line: “Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace, will stay on the moon to rest in peace.”
Luckily, Nixon never delivered that speech because the astronauts arrived home safely. But a group of researchers decided to create a deepfake video that convincingly, terrifyingly, shows the former U.S. president giving that speech in the full glory of 1960s-era television. The footage is false, but shows just how hard it is to ferret out fake videos from real ones.
“Media misinformation is a longstanding phenomenon, but, exacerbated by deepfake technologies and the ease of disseminating content online, it’s become a crucial issue of our time,” stated Fox Harrell, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Center for Advanced Virtuality.
The team at MIT created the video using a voice actor and a company, known as Respeecher, that can make synthetic speech by implementing “deep learning.” This is an artificial intelligence technique that mimics the connections in the human brain to process information and create patterns for a network to make decisions. Another company called Canny AI used “video dialogue replacement techniques” to imitate how Nixon moved his mouth and lips in real life.
The Nixon deepfake is meant to provoke a wider reflection not only on how fake news influences our decision making, but how artificial intelligence is already used today to curate news and to deliver customized ads for consumers reading online content.
“This alternative history shows how new technologies can obfuscate the truth around us, encouraging our audience to think carefully about the media they encounter daily,” added Francesca Panetta, the center’s extended reality creative director, in the same statement.
A new 30-minute documentary explores how the deepfake was made, in association with Scientific American. (You can watch the video here.) The documentary includes discussion by experts on how deepfakes like this Nixon one can be used to spread misinformation and disinformation, and how our reality can shift when encountering deepfakes online.
MIT Open Documentary Lab fellow Halsey Burgund, along with Panetta, created moondisaster.org to give more information about deepfakes in the context of the fake Nixon disaster video.
“It’s our hope that this project will encourage the public to understand that manipulated media plays a significant role in our media landscape,” stated Burgund, “and that, with further understanding and diligence, we can all reduce the likelihood of being unduly influenced by it.”