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.