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Creator behind viral Tom Cruise deepfakes says they're a warning

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The creator of a series of deepfake Tom Cruise videos that garnered more than 11 million views on TikTok said he never wanted to trick people.

But since he has, he's hoping the sudden influx of attention can help bring greater awareness to the continued evolution of the technology that can create incredibly realistic fake videos of people.

“The important thing is, we didn’t want to fool people at any moment,” Chris Ume, 31, the Belgian visual effects artist behind the viral deepfakes, said in an interview. “If I can help in creating awareness, or even work on detection in the future, I would love to.”

Ume created the four videos, in which it appeared to show the Hollywood star playing golf, doing a magic coin trick, and falling over while telling a story about the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. Three of them went viral, attracting attention on TikTok and across the internet.

And though most people realized quickly that the videos were fake, even experts were impressed by their quality.

Chris Ume used a combination of visual effects and editing software to make Miles Fisher look almost identical to Tom Cruise. (Chris Ume)
Chris Ume used a combination of visual effects and editing software to make Miles Fisher look almost identical to Tom Cruise. (Chris Ume)

“My first thought was they’re incredibly well done,” said digital image forensics expert Hany Farid, who is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and specializes in image analysis and misinformation. “They’re funny, they’re clever.”

But they also offer a warning: Deepfake technology that has emerged in recent years continues to evolve and improve. And while deepfake videos have not yet been effectively used in many misinformation campaigns, the danger is growing.

“In the early days, you could see the potential, but it wasn’t even close to being there,” Farid said. “But this felt to me like it was a real step, like we just took a big step forward in the development of this technology.”

Cruise did not respond to a request for comment. Meanwhile his impersonator, Miles Fisher, replied to an NBC News email but said he did not wish to comment further.

Synthetic digital content, otherwise known as a deepfake, can include anything from an image or video in which one person or object is visually or audibly manipulated to say and do something that is fabricated. In the case of the @deeptomcruise TikTok account, Ume used a combination of visual effects and editing software to make Fisher look almost identical to the "Mission Impossible" actor.

Other manipulated videos have gained traction in recent years. A video produced by BuzzFeed warning the public about deepfake technology featured the actor Jordan Peele's realistic-looking impersonation of former President Barack Obama in 2018 that gained more than 8 million views on YouTube, and more recently other videos have emerged involving the former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

While analyzing the @deeptomcruise TikTok videos, Farid said he found it difficult to detect common discrepancies that have previously been spotted in other deepfakes — such as glitches around the face, particularly when it has been partially obscured by a moving hand.

He said he was able to identify inconsistencies particularly around the eyes, although “they were very minor.”

“This one was very polished," Farid added. "It was long and in high resolution."

Although Ume used sophisticated visual effects editing, advancements in digital editing through smartphone apps such as Reface, Facetune and even Snapchat have made techniques like face-swapping and image altering more accessible and could cause the possible weaponization of deepfakes, experts say.

However Matt Groh, a research assistant with the Affective Computing group at the MIT Media Lab, said there were “still a lot of constraints on what this can do.”

“Our imagination can quickly run wild, and just assume it's really good on all fronts — and maybe someday it can be,” he said. “When you have a bunch of different videos, rather than a single video, you start to see where some of these imperfections lie.”

To allay the fears of experts like Farid, Ume said he would like to see regulations brought in to allow responsible use of deepfake technology, and for social media networks to create labels for such content.

Detection software isn’t good enough right now, he said.

“That’s obvious because these three videos weren’t detected by the models," he said.

Since his videos went viral on TikTok, Ume has released a visual effects breakdown of how he created them, in an attempt to help educate people on how they’re made and how difficult they can be to produce.

“It’s not something you can do at home,” said Ume, who is part of a team of deepfake artists at Deep Voodoo — a visual effects studio assembled by Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the creators of the show “South Park.”

The TikTok videos were so convincing, Ume said, because of his expertise, as well as the ability to work with someone like Fisher who could impersonate Cruise so well.

TikTok updated its policy, after releasing a statement in August 2020, that prohibits synthetic or manipulated content which "misleads users by distorting the truth of events and cause harm to the subject of the video, other persons, or society."

However, TikTok did not take any action against @deeptomcruise or the videos it posted because it did not go against its community guidelines. The social media platform declined to comment.

While the deepfake Cruise videos are entertaining and were “never really meant to be deceptive,” Farid said, there are “legitimate concerns” about how this could inspire others to create similar fabricated content.

“Think about the implications for national security,” Farid said. “Think about the implications if I create a video of Jeff Bezos saying that Amazon stock profits are down 20 percent — how much can I move the markets? How many billions of dollars before anybody figures out that it's fake?”

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