Deepfakes Are Being Used to Puncture Politicians’ Bluster
A YouTuber with an unhealthy obsession with 1990s female songstresses is slowly eroding the credibility of Brazil’s government
In May, a video showing Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro dressed up as Chapulin Colorado — a famous character from a 1970’s Mexican TV show — went viral, reaching over 100,000 views on YouTube (and over 900,000 on Twitter), with a fake-Bolsonaro misquoting his own campaign slogan: “Brazil above everything, God above everyone”.
Bolsonaro — the country’s most powerful man — is dressed in a bright red lycra bodysuit with two tiny antenna swinging about above his head. He looks ridiculous as he tries to repeat his campaign slogan while, like a standard TV sitcom, you can hear laughter from a non-existent audience with jazzy music playing in the background to set the jovial mood.
“Thank you very much, above all the New Yorkers,” he stumbles to laughter, misspeaking once. He tries again: “Brazil above” — he stumbles again — “the center” — yet another stumble — before finally managing to say “[above] everything”.
Of course, it’s not Bolsonaro — a strongman who has been likened to a dictator would never agree to be put in such a scene — but instead a deepfake of him, using artificial intelligence technology and machine learning to map images of a face onto pre-existing ones, then model how they would react when people move, creating an almost-perfect video of pretty much anyone. The deepfake was produced by 30-year-old Brazilian journalist Bruno Sartori.
Sartori is from the small city of Unaí, in the state of Minas Gerais, and decided to use deepfakes as a way to mock politicians on his YouTube channel, in particular far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro.
The creator says Bolsonaro has policies contrary to his ideas and uses his deepfakes to criticize the leader. “Making [deepfakes of] politicians is easier because of the image rights,” he says. “Politicians are public figures, so the image of the president is free to be used. Bolsonaro represents the government and I like to criticize power.” Sartori hides behind Bolsonaro’s own words protecting free speech. “They say they are against political correctness, so they should be in favor of this kind of joke,” explains Sartori.
With over 385,000 views, another deepfake video shows Bolsonaro singing “xibom, bombom”, music by the band “As Meninas”, a chart-topper in the late 1990s that most Brazilians will know off by heart. The lyrics, which Sartori changed, make reference to Bolsonaro’s attempt to name one of his sons, Congressman Eduardo Bolsonaro, the country’s ambassador to the United States — widely considered an act of nepotism.
Perhaps the greatest irony is that the original music complains of the country’s inequality, something that Bolsonaro would consider “communism”, a strawman he often uses.
His biggest YouTube hit, however, with over 600,000 views, was a short video showing a fake former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva singing Mariah Carey’s “Obsessed” — also mocking Bolsonaro for being obsessed with Lula, his biggest political opponent.
In the video, Bolsonaro, in various situations — talking to the press, giving interviews or giving speeches — repeats the name of Lula, his not-so-secret obsession, until we see Mariah Carey, or rather, the face of former President Lula in the body of the singer, in various sexy positions with Bolsonaro as a stalker desiring him.
1990s American songstresses with powerful vocal ranges seem to be an obsession of Sartori’s: he also pasted Bolsonaro into a video where he extolls the virtues of Donald Trump to Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You”, a reference to the “special relationship” that Bolsonaro preaches to have with Donald Trump.
The crossover between Bolsonaro and Lula was such a hit that he did it again, with a video that surpassed 300,000 views shortly after Lula was released from prison, on November 8, on the backdrop of the Mexican soap opera La Usurpadora, which was very successful throughout Latin America in the late 1990s. In the video, the two politicians are talking over the phone. Lula calls Bolsonaro a “usurper” and that he’s the rightful president. A worried Bolsonaro stumbles on his words saying he still has many years to go. Lula replies: “Get ready, I’m coming back” — then dramatic music starts playing.
Sartori started editing videos from the age of 15, painstakingly producing animations satirizing the political makeup of his hometown that took months to make. “I made humor videos with the politicians of my city, parodies in which I changed their faces and posted on Facebook and other social media,” he says. In 2018, Sartori discovered on Reddit a Python code library for creating deepfakes. Through trial and error, he began to create his material and post it on YouTube as a way to “participate in politics, through humor, making constructive criticism”.
The first deepfake he made was one of his own face in place of Beyonce’s face singing the song ‘Pretty hurts’. “I published it in a closed Facebook community for pop culture and reached 20,000 views,” he says. He’d found the secret sauce for virality. “I continued making montages with my face for some time.”
The reaction of the public to deepfakes, says Sartori, was one of fright. “People were pretty scared of the kind of content that could be done,” he explains. Bolsonaro as Chapulin Colorado (the weird red bee thing) “impressed a lot, but now I get a lot of name-calling and threats from his fanatical electorate — but there are some of his constituents who come to me to comment that they like my videos.” Sartori has faced his share of online abuse, such as supporters of Bolsonaro saying that the president should “hunt [him] down”.
But deepfakes, even though they may just seem to be popping the pomposity of political leaders, can have real consequences. According to a study by Deeptrace, 96% of deepfake videos online are non-consensual pornography — and not of politicians. But politicians do end up being victims of deepfakes with the intention of damaging their careers and harm their campaigns, as was the case of the current governor of the State of São Paulo, João Dória.
Dória may have been the first victim of political deepfakes in Brazil. On the eve of the second round of the state and national elections, in October 2018, a video showing a supposed Dória — who in a campaign defended conservative values and “family values” — participating in an orgy with 5 women leaked online. Doria promptly denied the truthfulness of the video, but experts failed to reach a satisfactory conclusion — in fact, Sartori himself says that, in his opinion, “the video may have been falsified in other ways, but the deepfake technology was not used in this particular case”.
Sartori seems to be an exception, making videos for fun and to make people laugh while also making a statement and criticising far-right Jair Bolsonaro and the state of Brazilian politics. He will keep producing videos, as for him, “it’s [politics] made in a different and new way that can make other people open their eyes — and even produce content themselves.”