AI-generated 'people' are being used to spread disinformation
The deepfake person behind a deluge of political conspiracy theories
Updated Mar. 30, 2021
Published Nov. 1, 2020
By way of introduction, this is Martin Aspen. Can you tell that he is not real?
Not only he is not real, but this photo is not ‘real’ either. This image is a ‘deepfake,’ meaning a piece of ‘synthetic media that was generated by artificial intelligence.
It could have easily been downloaded from This Person Does Not Exist, a free website that uses AI to spit out images of people who do not exist. There are still some tell-tale signs that Aspen is an AI-concoction: his ears look slightly blurry and the shape of his irises is irregular. But, if you had come across the photo on Facebook or Twitter, would you have been able to tell?
Even though ‘Martin Aspen’ is not real, he is important because he is the fake persona behind a deluge of conspiracy theories surrounding Hunter Biden, the son of Presidential nominee Joe Biden.
Aspen is cited as the lead ‘author’ of a 64-page report alleging a sprawling conspiracy of corruption involving the Bidens, Barack Obama and the Communist Party of China. The report was produced by a Swiss intelligence agency, ‘Typhoon Investigations.’ Since it emerged online in September, it has gone viral on the right-wing corners of the internet.
Aspen, ostensibly a Swiss intelligence professional, ‘emerged’ online just before the report did. The same deepfake image is used on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn profiles. On Twitter, Aspen is described as a ‘Veteran Eastern Europe/Asia security analyst’ who is ‘now concerned about China.’ The account has only tweeted a handful of times, but appears to have been laying the groundwork for the release of the report as early as August, when it tweeted, ‘We are currently working on a big and important investigation….watch this space!’
According to public records, however, no-one by the name of Martin Aspen lives in Switzerland. The organisations listed as former workplaces on Aspen’s LinkedIn profile have confirmed that no person by that name has ever worked there. Swiss government records have no trace of a company called ‘Typhoon Investigations.’ Meanwhile, the address listed online for Typhoon Investigations leads to a Mac repair shop in Lugano, Switzerland.
The Hunter Biden conspiracy theories rely heavily on the content of Aspen’s report and bear all the hallmarks of a ‘hack and dump’ operation. This is essentially what it says on the can: a breach of private information, followed by its ‘dump’ into the public domain. The Biden conspiracies hit the mainstream on October 14th, when the contents of a mysterious laptop spilt into public view as The New York Post ran a story alleging a leak of files from ‘Hunter Biden’s laptop.’ The story insinuated that Hunter Biden had attempted to use his father’s influence to enrich himself in Ukraine.
The origins of the laptop are dubious. The owner of a Mac repair shop in Delaware – an ardent Trump supporter – claimed that the laptop was dropped off to be repaired in April 2019 by a man who identified himself as ‘Hunter Biden.’ He said that he became suspicious of the laptop, and later found it contained ‘disturbing items.’ He then claimed to have handed the contents of the laptop to the FBI and his trusted political contacts.
By this summer, two Trump attack-dogs, the former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani and Trump’s former Chief of Staff, Steve Bannon, had copies of the hard drive. Citing Giuliani and Bannon as sources, The New York Post story was born. (The fact that the address listed online for Typoon Investigations’ office is also a Mac repair shop could be a coincidence, but it could also be an elaborate in-joke in the context of The New York Post piece.)
Since then, the laptop has been proclaimed by Donald Trump and his allies as smoking-gun evidence of a vast network of corruption linking the Bidens to Ukraine and China and beyond. The allegations have also taken a darker twist, with unsubstantiated viral rumours that the laptop contains over 25,000 images of Hunter Biden raping and torturing minors under the age of 10.
While Trump and his associates have complained that the mainstream media is not covering the Hunter Biden story properly, no news-organisations apart from Fox News and The Wall Street Journal have been given access to key documents referred to in these claims. Any credible news organisation must insist on its prerogative to fact-check such serious allegations.
It is alarming to see the use of a deepfake in the context of these conspiracies, as it has the potential to influence voters at this critical juncture in the election. The same thing happened in the 2016 race too. A vast stolen cache of emails from John Podesta, the Chair of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, was released via WikiLeaks a month before the election.
The emails documented everything from the banal (a risotto recipe) to the politically explosive, such as the transcripts of the private speeches Hillary Clinton had delivered on Wall Street for megabucks. It has since been established that the Russian cyber-espionage group ‘Fancy Bear,’ was behind the dump, working in tandem with the GRU, the Russian military intelligence agency.
The 2016 dump came at a very convenient moment for Trump. The infamous Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged about ‘grabbing women by the p****’ had just emerged. A slew of Republicans, including from Red States like Idaho and Alabama, had publicly started to abandon Trump. All of a sudden, after Russian hackers had sat on them for over six months, the Podesta emails appeared. Suddenly, the conversation was all about Clinton, as the media, voters and conspiracy theorists poured over every single detail of the emails to find evidence of wrongdoing.
Interestingly, The New York Post appears also to have been strategically timed in 2020. It emerged just weeks after The New York Times published Donald Trump’s tax returns, which showed that the President had paid no income tax for over a decade, and only $750 in each of 2016 and 2017. In the past, such disclosure might have been fatal to a re-election campaign, in 2020 it is a mere footnote in the race to the White House.
When large amounts of classified or ‘private’ information is revealed online, it might appear to be a truth-seeking exercise, leading people like Julian Assange or Edward Snowden to be hailed as heroes. However, the information contained in hack-and-dump operations can be fake, and even are they are authentic, they can have the effect of censorship.
Censorship is still broadly thought of denying individuals access to crucial information. This is the type of censorship practised in North Korea, for instance, where Kim Jong-Un’s regime restricts access to the internet, while forcing schools to teach that the ‘Outstanding Leader’ was a child prodigy who could drive at the age of three.
However, the undifferentiated information overload that now characterises the information ecosystem in Western societies can impede focus and perception too. This phenomenon has been referred to as ‘censorship through noise’ and it is just as potent as the North-Korean model of censorship.
One unforeseen consequence of the 2016 Podesta email leaks, for example, was the birth of the QAnon conspiracy theory. According to this worldview, Donald Trump is waging a secret battle against Satanic paedophiles. This morphed from online speculation on Reddit and 4Chan forums that the Podesta emails, which made references to ‘cheese pizza’ were ‘code’ for ‘child porn’. The Podesta emails were the petri-dish for the West’s first global internet cult: QAnon.
Censorship through noise is incredibly difficult to grapple with. Not least because any actor, foreign or domestic, has the right to consume and spread information in Western information spaces. This puts Western democracies in a fiendish catch-22: any organised attempts to differentiate between good and bad information – i.e. fact check – can be pointed to as evidence of ‘censorship’ and yet, the sheer abundance of raw information – including disinformation— is having the same effect too.
The trend from 2016 to 2020 is clear. Censorship through noise is becoming an increasingly potent phenomenon. And as ‘Martin Aspen’ and ‘Typhoon Investigations’ reveal, nascent visual disinformation in the form of deepfakes (which did not exist in 2016), are making it even more difficult to discern between good and bad information.
Americans may not believe that Kim Jong Un could drive as a toddler, but since the last election, millions of them have subscribed to a worldview which proclaims that President Trump is waging a secret battle against an elite cabal of satanic paedophiles. So it seems fair to ask: whose perception is more warped?