Worries grow that TikTok is new home for manipulated video and photos – The Denver Post


The alligators of TikTok are not what they seem.

They appear in posts scattered across the video service, photoshopped into hurricane-flooded homes, blended into cheetah-pitbull hybrids or awaiting a wrestling match with a digitally engineered avatar of Tom Cruise.

And they are harmless, like much of the manipulated media on TikTok, warranting a few laughs and likes before slipping back into a relentless stream of content. But their existence worries people who study misinformation, because the same techniques are being applied to posts that sow political division, advance conspiracy theories and threaten the core tenets of democracy before the midterm elections.

“This kind of manipulation is only becoming more pervasive,” said Henry Ajder, an expert on manipulated and synthetic media. “When this volume of content can be created so quickly and at such scale, it completely changes the landscape.”

Edited or synthesized material also appears on other online platforms, such as Facebook, which has nearly 3 billion monthly active users. But experts said it was especially hard to catch on TikTok, which encourages its estimated 1.6 billion active users to put their own stamp on someone else’s content, and where reality, satire and outright deceit sometimes blend together in the fast-moving and occasionally livestreamed video feed.

The spread of potentially harmful manipulated media is hard to quantify, but researchers say they are seeing more examples emerge as the technologies that enable them become more widely accessible. Over time, experts said, they fear that the manipulations will become more common and difficult to detect.

In recent weeks, TikTok users have shared a fake screenshot of a nonexistent CNN story claiming that climate change is seasonal. One video was edited to imply that White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre ignored a question from Fox News reporter Peter Doocy. Another video, from 2021, resurfaced this fall with the audio altered so that Vice President Kamala Harris seemed to say virtually all people hospitalized with COVID-19 were vaccinated. (She had said “unvaccinated.”)

TikTok users have embraced even the most absurd altered posts, such as ones last month that portrayed President Joe Biden singing “Baby Shark” instead of the national anthem or that suggested a child at the White House lobbed an expletive at the first lady, Jill Biden.

But more than any single post, the danger of manipulated media lies in the way it risks further damaging the ability of many social media users to depend on concepts like truth and proof. The existence of deepfakes, which are usually created by grafting a digital face onto someone else’s body, is being used as an accusation and an excuse by those hoping to discredit reality and dodge accountability — a phenomenon known as the liar’s dividend.

Conspiracy theorists have posted official White House videos of the president on TikTok and offered debunked theories that he is a deepfake. Political consultant Roger Stone claimed on Telegram in September that footage showing him calling for violence ahead of the 2020 election, which CNN aired, was “fraudulent deepfake videos.” Lawyers for at least one person charged in the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol in 2021 have tried to cast doubt on video evidence from the day by citing “widely available and insidious” deepfake-making technology.

“When we enter this kind of world, where things are being manipulated or can be manipulated, then we can simply dismiss inconvenient facts,” said Hany Farid, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who sits on TikTok’s content advisory council.


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