Trump’s Deepfake-Like Retweet is from App Praised by Russian Outlet

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Credit: Mug Life

The smartphone and tablet application used to make a doctored GIF of former Vice President Joe Biden, which President Donald Trump retweeted Monday, cites praise from a Russian media outlet accused of meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The GIF depicts Biden, Trump’s presumptive presidential opponent, raising his eyebrows and sticking out his tongue. A watermark on the GIF indicates its creator used Mug Life, an app that enables users to animate images of human and animal faces to make them three-dimensional. The app has 11,000 ratings on Apple’s App Store and more than one million installs from Google Play.

Mug Life was created in 2015 by two men in Texas and is owned by a limited liability company registered in Texas, according to a state filing. But its App Store and Google Play pages feature the headline from a positive review by Sputnik News, a Russia-based media outlet that the United States intelligence community said in a 2017 assessment participated in a state-sponsored propaganda effort to meddle in the 2016 election.

“We have no connection to Russia. We just liked their quote,” Rob Cohen, chief executive officer and chief technology officer for Mug Life, wrote to me in an email.

Cohen said he had been unaware that Trump retweeted the GIF, and he confirmed that it appeared to have been made with his app. He also said he was unaware of the U.S. intelligence assessment regarding Sputnik.

“Trump has been lampooned by his share of ‘Mugs.’ We love political humor,” added Cohen, who started the app with Thomas Coles.

The Mug Life app pages cite a Sputnik headline from 2017, “Simple Photos Turned into Super-Realistic 3D Animations Rock the Web.” The Sputnik article says, “A new app, which can literally breathe life into any image featuring a face thanks to sophisticated technology, has taken the [sic] by storm!”

The U.S. intelligence assessment described Sputnik as a “government-funded outlet producing pro-Kremlin radio and online content in a variety of languages for international audiences.” The assessment said the outlet and another one, RT, “consistently cast President-elect Trump as the target of unfair coverage from traditional U.S. media outlets that they claimed were subservient to a corrupt political establishment.”

The Russian outlet RIA Global LLC, which has produced content for Sputnik, registered as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice in 2018. The Justice Department has asked similar outlets to do so as well.

The Twitter user who posted the GIF, SilERabbit, appears to go online by “Peter Douche,” a parody name. The account has more than 60,000 followers. This person appears to be known in the progressive Twitter world and appears to have once been suspended from Twitter for operating a parody account. The person did not respond to a message I sent Monday.

Journalists pointed out that the GIF appeared to be a deepfake video. These are videos that are manipulated with artificial intelligence to appear real. The Atlantic’s David Frum published an article Monday titled, “The Very Real Threat of Trump’s Deepfake.”

National security analysts have predicted that deepfake videos would disrupt the 2020 election. Congress held a 2019 hearing focused on deepfakes, and the Pentagon has commissioned research on them. As of last September, federal and state lawmakers had introduced around a dozen bills regarding deepfakes, according to a survey by the law firm WilmerHale. Virginia, Texas, and California have passed such legislation.

But Cohen, the Mug Life executive, said the app does not “specifically” use deepfake technology. “Deep Fake is a specific open source project created by researchers,” he said by email. “It can give great results, but it involves training neural networks for each use, requiring a large amount of expertise and computing power. Mug Life has some similarities (including use of deep neural networks), but it can be used by novices on mobile phones and tablet to animate photos in seconds.”

So far, there are no major examples of deepfake videos that have caused political disruption in the U.S., only a small handful of clips such as the one Trump retweeted that have been manipulated in other, obvious ways.

Trump has previously retweeted manipulated content featuring Biden. He also has previously retweeted dubious accounts or content. One person whose pro-Trump tweet he reposted claimed to be a college student in Colorado named Madison. But the account had previously tweeted anti-Trump comments, and the person refused to verify their identity to me.

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