The New ‘Cheap Fakes’ and the Coming Presidential Debates | Commentary

Caution ahead as we anticipate Thursday night’s first Presidential debate. Unscrupulous actors are ready to pounce on every moment to splice and socialize candidate gaffes, whether they’re real or not. It’s not just about AI-generated “deep fakes” anymore. Now we also need to be aware of so-called “cheap fakes.”

Just two weeks ago a “cheap fake” widely circulated by The New York Post showed the president at the G7 summit in Italy with the caption, “President Biden appeared to wander off at the G7 summit in Italy, with officials needing to pull him back to focus.”

As TheWrap pointed out in its coverage, many began noting that the video on the Post’s social media was seemingly cropped so as not to show the other group of skydivers that Biden was turning to address.

Last week, Stewart’s The Daily Show featured the clip showing Biden seemingly waving to absolutely nobody, then being sheepishly escorted back to the main event. Based on that video clip, Stewart, in his trademark way, questioned whether Biden was “all there.” My wife and I – being avid Jon Stewart viewers who appreciate his overall sophistication – looked at each other as we watched and gulped. Sad.

It was only afterward that we realized it wasn’t true.

The real clip – which had been doctored to meet a certain political agenda – featured Biden waving to real actual parachutists who had just landed. In other words, Biden’s mind was, in fact, very much intact. Not in the air.

Cheap fakes – unlike deep fakes generated using sophisticated AI tech — are real media (images, video) that have been deceptively cropped or edited using simple editing tools to create an impact very different than the real thing.

Partisans created the Biden clip — and its rather diabolical cheap fake magic — undoubtedly on the cheap (hence, the name) with low-tech deceptive cropping. Alteration of real audio tracks are also hallmarks of cheap fakes. All of these can be highly effective to spread disinformation at mass speed and scale, as we saw last week with the Biden video, which had been watched over three million times just two days after it had been posted.

By the time word got out about the cheap fake shenanigans, much of the damage had already been done. Everyone loves a salacious story after all, even if it isn’t true. That’s especially the case when media companies have lost any urge or inclination to be fair and balanced.

Cheap fakers attack on Nancy Pelosi

Nancy Pelosi notoriously suffered a similar fate in 2019. That’s when cheap fakers altered a video to slur her speech and make her appear to be intoxicated. The reality, of course, was something entirely different. Bad actors had simply subtly edited the video to meet their nefarious narrative, pressed “post” across all major social media platforms, and BAM! – the video went viral and created a fake narrative entirely its own. Red meat dished out. Red meat successfully served.

Both cheap fakes and deep fakes generate profound implications for media and entertainment as they proliferate at ever accelerating speeds. On the positive legitimate side, studios use deep-fake technology, with licensed consent, to resurrect actors who have been deceased for years, such as the digital recreation of actor Peter Cushing for the film “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.”

Celebrities are already lining up to scan themselves — Paris Hilton did so several years ago as depicted in the 2018 documentary “The American Meme” — so that their likenesses can stay forever young to act in future productions even when they physically can’t. The business opportunity is expected to be so great that CAA already has set up an AI talent cloning operation called CAA Vault.

On the sadly more pervasive side, our new era of fakes poses the very real serious threat to authenticity and trust in the media. Unable to distinguish real from increasing fakery even by some of the largest media companies on the planet, public trust is undermined — and then all bets are off.

Peter Cushing Carrie Fisher de-aging
Peter Cushing Carrie Fisher were digitally de-aged for “Rogue One” (Disney)

Dystopian results are not limited to presidents and ex-presidents, of course. Malicious unauthorized cheap and deep fake videos of celebrities (not to mention non-celebrities) are proliferating with increasing frequency with potentially defamatory and even tragic results. Taylor Swift found herself at the center of the deepfake storm earlier this year, and several teens have reportedly committed suicide after being victimized.

President Biden has essentially no choice but to endure the fakery because he is the most public of public figures in the world. The courts are simply unlikely to intervene (have you seen this Supreme Court lately?). But others like Swift and the parents of teens most certainly can and will sue as this technology proliferates.

The ironic thing about this tech-enabled mass deception – at least on the deep fake side of the equation — is that it’s now up to those same tech companies that empowered this alternative reality to knock it down. Big Tech claims to be on its way, with virtually every major platform developing one fake-spotting solution or another. Google, for example, has developed SynthID which identifies AI-generated content. And then at least some in government are doing their best to move laws and regulations forward, including by pushing the No AI Fraud Act, which offers protections for human performers. But how likely is that anytime soon, given the gridlock and downright anger in Washington?

And remember, purveyors of cheap fakes don’t need AI or complex tech to work their artificial alchemy. Simple editing techniques, which are hard to spot, can suffice. So ultimately, and unfortunately, it’s up to all of us to be wary of all content, read the warning signs, check multiple sources, and learn to distinguish what is real from what is fake.

Consider that as you watch the Presidential Thursday night fights.

Reach out to Peter at For those of you interested in learning more, sign up to his “the brAIn” newsletter, visit his firm Creative Media at, and follow him on Threads @pcsathy.

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