Hail SPECTRE! Subvertising goes Deep-Fake

Hail SPECTRE! Subvertising goes Deep-Fake

A sinister interactive installation called Spectre sheds light on the power of AI and ‘deep fake’ technology to create propaganda and undermine democracy. Are you ready to ‘‘pray at the altar of Dataism with the Gods of Silicon Valley”?

Words by Dr. Mark Blacklock

At the centre of the gallery stand six black monoliths, 2.5 metres high, facing inwards on a circular pedestal. Gallery visitors face each, with their backs to the centre of the circle, as if participating in a ritual. Set into each monolith is a screen. Participants in the ritual are wired to the monoliths by headphones and a touchscreen controller through which they are invited to build a digital-influencing campaign by selecting which datasets they will use to target a population: credit scores, social media activity, web histories, each category exemplary of the data harvested from us all. The psychometric profiles of the people we want to target, their OCEAN ratings, are provided, and we build an appropriate drag-and-drop ad to targeted at this demographic. The reach is huge. Finally, we select influencers to repeat our message. Kim Kardashian tells us “when there’s so many haters, I really don’t care, because their data has made me rich beyond my wildest dreams.” Mark Zuckerberg declares that “Spectre showed me how to manipulate you into sharing intimate data about yourself and all your loved ones for free.” The artist Marina Abramovich informs us that she thinks about death every day. Each pays tribute to an organisation that enables the religion of DATAISM to which they pledge allegiance: Spectre (named after the online persona of Dr. Aleksandr Kogan, the data scientist who sold 87 million Facebook profiles to Cambridge Analytica).

The installation, shown for the first time at Sheffield Doc Fest, was created by artists Bill Posters, co-founder of Brandalism, and Dr. Daniel Howe. Within days of its launch its ‘deep fake’ avatar celebrity endorsement videos had gone viral, generating global media coverage. Posters fielded our questions.

How did you select which celebs to fake? 

It is important to mention here that the ‘deep fake' clips you are referring to are digital artworks that form part of the content of the Spectre installation. Myself and Daniel Howe wanted to reveal how powerful technologies can be used to influence our understandings and behaviours today, and one of the technologies that we explore in Spectre is AI synthesised video generation commonly known as 'deep fake' technology. For Spectre, we wanted to 'influence' the 'Influencers' that hold so much power today. We selected 'influencers' from the past and present to create the AI generated digital storytelling elements that have since gone viral on Instagram. We chose a range of influencers from the fields of art, technology and politics - the three broad fields that the Spectre project interrogates. We then simulated the way corporations generate interest in products by using our AI-generated 'avatars' as forms of celebrity endorsement online to generate interest. It has been fascinating to see it spread virally online. 

Spectre is the territory of the future...it is clear that we can’t have a democracy without privacy and control of our personal data.

Is the software you used out in the wild/freely available? 

The software our AI partners use to generate these pieces of moving image art is not freely available. However, it is important to mention here that there are also no laws or regulatory controls for all of the forms of computational propaganda that Spectre explores: OCEAN profiling, micro-targeting advertising and AI generated video and text.

Is this a shift of the subvertising tradition online? 

For Spectre, we applied the Situationist theory of ‘detournement’ [hijacking in French] to subvert the methods and technologies that are commonly used by the Digital Influence Industry to influence our perceptions and behaviours online. There have been many other projects that have created digital interventions as forms of culture jamming, however, we believe this is the first project to subvert the very technologies and psychological methods of the Digital Influence Industry. Spectre is the territory of the future, as it is clear that we can't have a democracy without privacy and control of our personal data. The US election and UK Brexit referendum has shown us this very recently already so we must interrogate the norms and cultures that exist at present in order to develop new ways of seeing the future. 


How close to data-analytics-based campaigns is the structure of the interactive section of the installation? 

Spectre contains a recreation of aspects of Cambridge Analytica's RIPON software that was used to great effect in the US elections in 2016. We worked with data scientists and Psychometricians from The Psychometrics Centre at Cambridge University to build what is essentially a 'dark ad' generator. A design tool that contains 40 different political campaign themes linked to high and low OCEAN personality profile traits that allows visitors to construct targeted Facebook Ads using the same methods made visible by the Cambridge Analytica scandal.

We just need an informed awareness of just how much information we give away about ourselves every day so we can decide what we are willing to trade for convenience.

What steps do you personally take to protect your data online? 

Whilst it is almost impossible to have any privacy at all if you use any laptop or mobile device, I am an open source advocate and use a variety of free plugins and tools to protect my personal data online as best as I can. There are some amazing organisations and individuals that have created really interesting tools that are free to use. For online surveillance of my browsing activities I use a plugin for Firefox called Ghostery, and HTTPS Everywhere alongside PrivacyBadger - a great new browser plugin. For online searching I use DuckDuckGo which blocks many advertising trackers and doesn't provide Google (the founder of Surveillance Capitalism) with more of your private data. For mobile devices, I turn off Data & Location services for apps, however, the reality is that if you own one, you have no privacy. We just need an informed awareness of just how much information we give away about ourselves every day so we can decide what we are willing to trade for convenience. 


Check out Tactical Technology Collectives 'Digital Detox' kit here.

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