The Daily Heller: Wishful Speaking

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Stephanie Lepp has launched Deep Reckonings, a video series that simulates (i.e., impersonates) the honest public statements the listener would like to hear coming from the mouths of political, government, business, judicial and religious leaders, instead of their obfuscations, lies and fantasies. Deep Reckonings was inspired by Reckonings, her podcast. As stated on the website:

[Reckonings] explores how people shift their political worldviews, transcend extremism and make other kinds of transformative change. Stories have included that of a deeply conservative Congressman who made a spiritual conversion on climate change, a white supremacist who transcended a life of hate, and the architect of Facebook's business model who's since devoted his life to tackling technology addiction. In Reckonings' early days, I started keeping a wishlist of moonshot guests—high-profile figures like Pope Francis, Charles Koch and Mark Zuckerberg, whose personal reckonings I thought would be most socially transformative. I fantasized about producing a fictional film about how Charles Koch's transformation in turn transformed our climate trajectory.

In the real world, this is pure fantasy. In the digital one, almost anything is possible. The process (see the videos here) involves combining synthetic video of a public figure with real audio of a voice actor reading a script. (It would have been possible to produce what Lepp calls a "complete deepfake" by creating synthetic audio of each public figure, but for budgetary and legal reasons, the project opted for voice actors.)

Lepp asserts that in a Trump-inspired climate of denial and deflection her job as an artist "is to make an alternative playbook that's more beautiful and powerful than the original. Deep Reckonings is intended to "expand the use of synthetic media for pro-social purposes," she adds. "The overwhelming majority of synthetic media online is nefarious in nature—mostly involuntary pornography with a dose of general disinformation and mean-spirited parody. Amid this sea of nefarious deepfakery, there’s a small but growing canon of synthetic media for good."

Her mission is to make a statement "that would move" Mark Zuckerberg, Brett Kavanaugh and Alex Jones, along with Louis CK, Ted Yoho and others, to say: "that is the me I want to be." The purpose of this new playbook is to make critical self-reflection look stunning—so that we are moved to do it, and our public figures are moved to do it, and we make room for each other to do it. The most recent video, produced in collaboration with Drew Westen, is Donald Trump's concession speech. If there was a scintilla of pixie dust hope that he would utter those or any other conciliatory words, his taped threats to Georgia’s secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, has ended that dream state.

While there is something manifestly hypnotic in each of these reckonings, there is also clear and present danger that comes with it. The intention has merit, yet two, three, four and more can (and do) play the deception game. This form of simulation is nothing new (just the software has become much more significant). No, this a special effect, a form of pulling back the curtains to show a puppeteer and ventriloquist. The writing and delivery, like Orson Welles' infamous radio drama "War of the Worlds," may be great satiric political theater, but this is one of those secret weapons that must be kept out of the hands of evildoers. And who is to accuse those people of evil-doing?

How do viewers distinguish real from fake or mimicry and impersonation? "In terms of the difference between deepfakes and conventional impersonation—on one hand, deepfakes can look more realistic, so they affect us more deeply," asserts Lepp. "It's the difference between watching The Social Network and knowing it's Jesse Eisenberg impersonating Mark Zuckerberg, versus watching Mark Zuckerberg himself have a reckoning. The latter has a higher likelihood of affecting how we feel about the protagonist. Which is part of the superpower of the deepfake medium: that we can know it's fake, but it still affects us."

But where is the line drawn between the belief that all news is easily faked and trust goes up in smoke?

"Deepfake technology is rightfully controversial. In all of the interviews I've had about Deep Reckonings, precisely 'zero' journalists have asked me about the scripts—about the actual words I have these men saying," adds Lepp. "We're so hung up on the technology, it's hard to experience the work itself! So there's a double-edged sword here."

Deep Reckonings makes explicit that the videos are fake through intro credits, outro credits, a visual watermark, and in the script itself (e.g. the imaginary Zuck says "this video is fake"). She also wrestled deeply with the ethical implications of the medium, as elaborated here: Deep Reckonings does not present itself as comedy show, but what I must dub a dubious means of releasing truth to the malleable public through mass media methods that go so diametrically counter to truth that boundary lines have been lost in the sand.

Nonetheless, Lepp explains, "More broadly, my art/work celebrates our human potential for transformation, and speaks to how we can move forward, post-election—in terms of truth and political healing."