Don’t Underestimate the Cheapfake

Picture of Nina Schick

Nina Schick

March 23, 2023


Deepfakes didn’t disrupt the US election as many predicted. But cheapfakes had a banner year writes Nina Schick for the MIT Tech Review.

On November 30, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao pinned an image to his Twitter profile.In it, a soldier stands on an Australian flag and grins maniacally as he holds a bloodied knife to a boy’s throat. The boy, whose face is covered by a semi-transparent veil, carries a lamb.

Alongside the image, Zhao tweeted, “Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, &call [sic] for holding them accountable.”

The tweet is referencing a recent announcement by the Australian Defence Force, which found “credible information” that 25 Australian soldiers were involved in the murders of 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners between 2009 and 2013. The image purports to show an Australian soldier about to slit the throat of an innocent Afghan child.

Explosive stuff.

Except the image is fake. Upon closer examination, it’s not even very convincing. It could have been put together by a Photoshop novice.This image is a so-called cheapfake, a piece of media that has been crudely manipulated, edited, mislabeled, or improperly contextualized in order to spread disinformation.

The cheapfake is now at the heart of a major international incident. Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, said China should be “utterly ashamed” and demanded an apology for the “repugnant” image.Beijing has refused, instead accusing Australia of “barbarism” and of trying to “deflect public attention” from alleged war crimes by its armed forces in Afghanistan.

There are two important political lessons to draw from this incident. The first is that Beijing sanctioned the use of a cheapfake by one of its top diplomats to actively spread disinformation on Western online platforms.China has traditionally exercised caution in such matters, aiming to present itself as a benign and responsible superpower. This new approach is a significant departure.

More broadly, however, this skirmish also shows the growing importance of visual disinformation as a political tool. Over the last decade, the proliferation of manipulated media has reshaped political realities.

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