Scarlett Johansson: Deepfake pornographers prey on the vulnerable

scarlett johannson Scarlett Johannson. | Georges Biard/Wikimedia CC BY SA 3.0

In a 25-year film career, Scarlett Johansson has portrayed a cartoon mermaid princess, a comic book superhero, an Indian python, and a punk-rock porcupine. She has not portrayed a porn star. Nevertheless, her image has been digitally-generated in dozens of "deepfake" pornographic videos, which have been viewed more than 1 million times.

The actress said recently there is no way to fight back, and that online pornographers prey on the vulnerable for profit.

"The Internet is just another place where sex sells and vulnerable people are preyed upon," Johansson told the Washington Post Dec. 30.

"Nothing can stop someone from cutting and pasting my image or anyone else's onto a different body and making it look as eerily realistic as desired."

Johansson has been the victim of digital technology that digitally replaces the faces of pornographic actors with those of celebrities, creating synthetic but convincing videos in which the digitally imposed person appears to be engaging in pornographic sexual acts.

One program, FakeApp, is freely available to download and does not require programming skills; it can be used by anyone with the kind of computer capable of running detailed video games.

"The fact is that trying to protect yourself from the internet and its depravity is basically a lost cause, for the most part," Johannson told the Washington Post.

"Vulnerable people like women, children and seniors must take extra care to protect their identities and personal content," she added.

The actress said that while Google has recently developed policies allowing anyone to request that false pornographic depictions of themselves be blocked from search results, deepfake pornography can still be found.

"There are basically no rules on the internet because it is an abyss that remains virtually lawless, withstanding US policies which, again, only apply here," she said.

FakeApp's creator has said that he hopes his face-swapping technology will become more easily accessible and useable.

"Eventually, I want to improve it to the point where prospective users can simply select a video on their computer, download a neural network correlated to a certain face from a publicly available library, and swap the video with a different face with the press of one button," the app's creator told Motherboard in 2018.

Matt Fradd, author of "The Porn Myth" and host of the podcast "Love People Use Things," told CNA last year that the app could invade celebrities' privacy and inflict harm upon their reputation.

"It will get to the point where we're not really sure if Jennifer Aniston just did a porn film, or whoever the celebrity is, or if this is one of the AI things. So we are dragging people's reputation through the mud and we are humiliating them," Fradd told CNA.

"If they can do that with celebrities they can do that with your sister or with your mom if they wanted to."

Rudolph Bush, director of journalism at the University of Dallas, told CNA in 2018 that deepfake technology could also be used for dangerous political manipulation.

"It's very likely to happen, I think, and the consequences could be serious," Bush told CNA. "Depending on who is targeted by this, depending on how ripe that target is to be manipulated, it could be very damaging."

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Bush said deepfakes could sow widespread social and institutional confusion.

"As these things become more sophisticated, particularly if they're used by state actors or groups with a high level of understanding of what it takes to manipulate a society or a group, then we'll see whether we can parse what's real or not real," he said.

For Johannson, who called deepfake pornography demeaning, fighting back is not a simple matter.

"it's a useless pursuit, legally, mostly because the internet is a vast wormhole of darkness that eats itself. There are far more disturbing things on the dark web than this, sadly."

Fradd told CNA that Catholics should respond to any kind of pornography with the wisdom of the Church.

"Wojtyla says the human person is a good to which the only proper and adequate attitude is love, but when we consume pornography we are always engaging in something contrary to love, namely use."


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