Back in April, actor and director Jordan Peele teamed up with Buzzfeed to create a deep fake video of Obama blabbering nonsense using nothing more than the free Deep App. Deep fake videos started surfacing online in mid-2017, but it was this particular video that sent an alarm bell across the internet and, at least for me, marked the official start of a new era of fake political information. Six months later, as predicted, deep fake videos have spilt over into every fissure of our content, but instead of directly harming politicians—as initially prophesied—they are causing grave destruction to women all over the world as they now hybrid pornographic footage with portrait images on social media to create incredibly realistic videos. The issue here is that when it comes to the spread of deep fake videos, everyone geared up for the foreseeable blasphemy of female politicians and in that focus, the online harassment of ordinary women the world over has gone largely unnoticed.
Australian Noelle Martin is a perfect example of this. Back in 2013, when she was just 17 years old, Martin became a victim of image manipulation online harassment. Her face cropped out of an ordinary picture posted on social media became the basis of countless pornographic images. Back at the time, deep fakes did not yet surface and Martin’s call for new legislation to protect against this type of sexual harassment went unanswered for years. Her experience with image-based abuse did not resonate loud enough with the world and—more importantly, the type of abuse she experienced slid through gaps in the law. While many countries, including Australia, did recognise some aspects of what is referred to as ‘revenge porn’ as a criminal act, no bill existed that protects against the manipulation of images, such as in the case of Martin.
Perhaps it is due to the rise of deep fakes and the fear that video is more visceral and more real than still image manipulation, but it was announced in June that New South Wales, where Martin ceaselessly petitioned for five years, will become the first state in the world to specifically include a provision on altering images in the legislation against the non-consensual distribution of intimate images, what Martin calls in her TEDx talk “image-base abuse”.
The new prevision, which was adopted on August 15 and is set to be quickly embraced by other states in Australia, including Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and West Australia (WA), is committed to treat the alternation of images and the non-consensual distribution of intimate images as an offence “punishable by jail terms of 18 months to seven years and fines of up to $18,000” as reported by ABC Australia.
I wonder if the fight to protect women from the abuse of image manipulation would have been this hard if Peele’s earlier warning had become true quicker and politicians—especially female—were targeted in the same merit and tenacity as Martin was. As of early June, when plans for the new law were announced, the office had received more than 119 inquiries about image-based abuse and 241 reports about images available across 285 websites. The numbers across the world are set to be in the hundred thousand.
Noelle Martin’s case is but a proof of the damage such abuse is capable of. She spent years personally contacting image hosting websites and pleading their owners to remove her images—as she was advised to do by lawmakers when she sought legal protection. It is impossible to make up for the time Martin lost or to mend her experience of an image-based abuse victim. But with this new provision, Australia is proving that the state and its slow-moving mechanisms of bureaucracy and legislation are capable of catching up to the accelerated development of deep fakes technology. Now it’s just a matter of seeing how long it will take for other countries to keep up with the speed of this cyber-crime.
Emojis are everywhere nowadays. In just a few years, they’ve gone from being unusual to ubiquitous. Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2015 was the crying with laughter emoji. But who makes the decisions that go into creating the emojis that become a staple aspect of our communication?
The Unicode Consortium, a non-profit organisation founded back in 1991, was set up to develop, extend and promote the use of the Unicode Standard, which gives every character — from letters and numbers to emojis and Mandarin characters — a unique number supported across every platform, programme and device.
But how many emojis do you actually use? Who types with the rolodex emoji, or the handball player, or the “water not suitable for drinking” sign? Groups have often petitioned for more diverse support: the LGBT+ flag, different skin colours, gender parity across the sports and professions.
The trans flag—horizontal stripes of light blue, pink and white, designed in 1999 by Monica Helms, a trans activist and author—has repeatedly been one of the most requested additions, but Unicode has still not introduced one.
Emoji 12.0, scheduled for release next year, has an emphasis on inclusivity: there are draft emoji candidates for men and women in wheelchairs and with canes, a guide dog and a service dog, an ear fitted with a hearing aid. But still no trans flag.
One campaigner has now taken it into their (perfectly manicured) hands to ensure the community is not forgotten again. Charlie Craggs, a trans activist and founder of Nail Transphobia (and Nail It) has launched Claws Out For Trans, a new campaign run in conjunction with brand strategy consultancy Revolt that aims call out Unicode for their repeated failure to include the trans community, while this year managing to add a lobster emoji.
Writing on her change.com petition, Craggs explains: “Emojis are a way for the world to connect, and trans people shouldn’t be left out of the conversation.Unicode granted the Lobster emoji proposal, which argued that people suffered ‘frustration and confusion’ at having to use a shrimp or crab emoji instead of a lobster. Imagine if that was your gender.”
Claws Out For Trans plans sets out to use the lobster emoji as an unofficial trans emoji, a surrogate flag, plastered over Instagram, Facebook and Twitter so that it’s inescapable and evidences the collective desire—across countries, continents and languages—for trans representation in digital media.
She adds: “P.S. In a twist of fate: Lobsters can actually be Gynandromorphs (an organism that contains both male and female characteristics). So we’re going to take it as our symbol, until we get the Trans emoji we deserve.”
Apple, Google and Microsoft, along with the likes of Adobe, Facebook and, strangely, the Government of India, are all members of the Unicode Consortium;: they have the power and influence needed to introduce new emojis. Moreover, these are all companies that, this month, signed the Business Statement for Trans Equality in response to the Trump Administration’s mooted policy to define trans and non-binary identities out of Federal recognition.
The statement reads: “We … stand with the millions of people in America who identify as transgender or gender non-binary, or who are intersex, and call for all such people to be treated with the respect and dignity everyone deserves… We call for respect and transparency in policy-making, and for equality under the law for transgender, gender non-binary, and intersex people.” This is hugely important and deals a major blow to Trump as 176 major companies have signed the statement, who employ a total of more than 7 million individuals and have a collective annual revenue of over $3.2 trillion.
But such activism and solidarity need to happen at every level. Trans and non-binary lives are punctuated by microaggressions—being misgendered, someone using the pronoun, whether intentionally or not—and small gestures, which such titans of tech have proven they are capable of, can have a huge impact.