We speak with Egyptian award-winning journalist Pakinam Amer about her involvement with creating 'In Event of Moon Disaster', an advanced deepfake documentary which just got nominated for an Emmy.
Can you spot a deepfake? In the age of misinformation where fake news is shared without a second thought, it feels like even the most skeptical among us are susceptible to a false narrative. 'In Event of Moon Disaster', a storytelling project and documentary directed by Francesca Panetta and Halsey Burgund and produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Center for Advanced Virtuality with a team of researchers and journalists, explores the ramification of emerging media technology. Released in 2020 on moondisaster.org, during a time when you couldn’t even talk about facemasks without being buried in conspiracy theories about 5G networks, the project made such an impact that it has now been nominated for an Emmy for ‘Outstanding Interactive Media: Documentary’. We got in touch with Egyptian award-winning journalist Pakinam Amer, a senior writer on the project and a research affiliate at the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality, to get a special perspective on how they got there.
"The heart of the film is a deepfake that reimagines the fate of the 1969 moon landing through resurrecting an emotional and poetic contingency speech that was written for Nixon at the time but was never actually given," Amer tells #CairoScene. "We augmented the film with a body of literature to inform about deepfakes and educate audiences about issues surrounding the nascent technology, including issues of ethics, privacy and exploitation."
The contingency speech was prepared for President Richard Nixon in case the Apollo 11 mission failed, leaving its astronauts stranded on the moon to die a slow death. There was no hope for a dramatic escape a la Matt Damon in ‘The Martian’ here - NASA and the United States had to prepare for everything, even the unthinkable. And so, the ‘In Event of Moon Disaster’ made the unthinkable happen by creating an advanced deepfake of Nixon delivering that same, morbid speech.
To do this, the team at the MIT Center for Advanced Virtuality - led by its director D. Fox Harrell, a professor of digital media and artificial intelligence at MIT - used machine learning technology to bring Nixon’s contingency speech to life, with Nixon’s voice produced by a company called Respeecher. Another company, Canny AI, was brought to recreate Nixon's facial movements, allowing the mouth and lips to sync up with the synthetic dialogue in a way that was true to life.
Since its online release, 'In Event of Moon Disaster' has gone on to win the Special Jury Prize for Digital Storytelling, while getting nominations from the Webby Awards, and becoming selected for Cannes XR and the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival. “It’s unbelievable and beyond a dream to be nominated for an Emmy. I’m still pinching myself," Amer adds. "I’m incredibly honoured to have been part of the fantastic team of journalists, creators and researchers that dreamed the concept, birthed the film, and worked hard to produce an educational and thoughtful body of literature around it at MIT."
With its latest Emmy nomination, it's safe to say the film and its accompanying lessons on falsified media has resonated with audiences worldwide. Now, after learning all this and reading all the literature attached to the film on its website, the question remains... Can you spot a deepfake?