Bill Posters is a former street artist based in the U.K. You may not know his name, but if you’ve been paying attention, you’ve likely seen his work.
He’s the man behind the recent spat of viral deepfakes: videos that make it look like various celebrities and politicians are making outrageous statements that they never really made. The videos that Posters makes are intentionally fabricated to illustrate a political point, but indicate a growing online problem: in the example below, Posters and his collaborator created this video of Mark Zuckerberg and posted it on Instagram to test the company’s policy of refusing to take down deepfake videos, he said.
Reached in the U.K. on the same day that his most recent deepfake videos dropped — videos that made it look like Prime Minister Boris Johnson and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn were endorsing each other for Prime Minister in the midst of the U.K.’s snap general election — Posters said he had always been interested in exploring and challenging various forms of propaganda, even back when he was a street artist. He was drawn to digital advocacy after the 2017 Cambridge Analytica scandal.
“We had these huge revelations in the ways that these huge companies use our information online to predict the way we act,” he told Digital Trends. “The internet has been almost like a lawless country for twenty years. What we’re seeing now is the effects of the lack of understanding and lack of regulations of these technologies.”
Cambridge Analytica was a data collection agency based in the U.K. that was accused of mining and selling the private data of some 220 million Americans in an attempt to target voters and influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. It was also revealed the company had done similar work in several other countries, including the U.K.
Posters produced his recent videos of Johnson and Corbyn with the U.K. think tank Future Advocacy to raise awareness of how bad actors may try to influence elections today, even if Cambridge Analytica isn’t around anymore.
“Politicians are really just trying to get a basic understanding of what’s happening,” Posters said, continuing that he sees the role of art today as one of trying to understand the current historical moment.
“For me, it’s about using creative processes to create space for people to engage with and politically explore the major issues that are dividing our lives today,” Posters said. “And a lot of that is the extent to which powerful technologies and personal data are being extracted and use in influential ways. So, how can we subvert the processes and tear the lid off the black box of the technology that’s used online every day?”
Earlier this year, Posters and his collaborator Daniel Howe opened an art installation in Sheffield, U.K., specifically to explore this idea. The project was called “Spectre,” named after the online alias of the American data scientist who sold 87 million Facebook profiles to Cambridge Analytica. The two also created convincing deepfake videos of Kim Kardashian, Freddy Mercury, Donald Trump, Morgan Freeman, and several other prominent figures to illustrate the ease of use and power of the technology.
Howe at the time said in a statement that the artists’ goal was to use the same data trolling and profiling techniques that big online companies use to “provide a personalized experience that allows users to feel what is at stake when the data taken from us in countless everyday actions is used in unexpected and potentially dangerous ways.”
A big part of that, Posters said, is misinformation. Posters is striving to explore ordinary people’s artistic and social relationships to these new forms of power. “What we’re seeing now is a reality where some of these companies are almost behaving like nation states,” he said. “They have no borders, they’re trillion-dollar companies, they don’t turn up to be questioned by selected representatives, so the balance of power has shifted away from our democratic institutions and toward corporations.”
Both Posters and the head of the think tank at Future Advocacy, Areeq Chowdhury, said they believe it’s up to the politicians to rein in the influence of these companies and, with it, problems like deepfake videos.
“There are a few politicians waking up to the idea that we need more regulation,” Chowdhury told Digital Trends when the videos of Johnson and Corbyn went live. “This is a problematic position we’re in. The responsibility for protecting democracy should not be outsourced to private companies in Silicon Valley.”
“It’s the job of an elected representative to hold power to account,” Posters said. “Our laws to control and protect our election are so outdated. Facebook basically just legitimizes targeted misinformation campaigns. Democracy can’t function without privacy.
“This is really at the heart of why we made these deepfakes of these politicians,” he continued. “To show that anyone’s personal data could be used in unexpected ways, even those in power.”