The Crimean Bridge and Infrastructural Deepfake

DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.202023 | Issue 5 | October 2020

Anna Engelhardt



Abstract


Deepfake technology, widely discussed in the media as a threat, has remained on the periphery of critical scholar engagement. Bringing the deepfake into the center of my practice-based research I expose its technical limitations. These material constraints, interrogated from the perspective of critical infrastructure studies, provide fruitful perspective on deepfake as a practice of machine fictioning that could guide research on propaganda infrastructures. To situate the role deepfake could play in such investigation, I analyse an instance of propaganda (poetic, in Larkin’s terms) infrastructure, the Crimean Bridge, and overview a broader category of computational propaganda in which deepfake could be placed. The context of computational propaganda allows to show the connections between deepfake technology and other means of image doctoring, while providing a historicised criticism of western-centric preoccupation with post-truth political landscapes.

Research Statement

The term “deepfake” was coined in 2017 when a user named “deepfake” started a channel on the Reddit website dedicated to the practice of deepfake manufacturing. Deepfake technology has been developed for the production of deepporn - fake porn videos, characterised by nonconsensual usage of female celebrities’ faces superimposed over the bodies of porn models. Such a specific goal defined the limitations of the deepfake technology that are impossible to grasp from the media coverage of the tool that is “... Going To Wreak Havoc On Society. We Are Not Prepared”[1]. Deepfakes did not imply any means of voice cloning that are important for footage doctoring, neither one could find no tools available to change the mouth movement of the target rather than simply swap faces - both aims are irrelevant for the production of fake porn. These technical limitations became apparent only from my practical engagement with deepfake technology. During my investigation in the Crimean Bridge, I found that the specific algorithmic nature of the deepfake technology was absent from critical theory research, despite being demonised in popular media. In line with the understanding of machine fictioning developed by David Burrows and Simon O’Sullivan following the Katherine Hayles’ notion of technogenesis, I aimed to establish a relationship with the technology that would not be reduced to mastery or transhuman augmentation and inform the research rather than serve as a tool to visualise its results[2]. I, therefore, began to treat deepfakes as infrastructure - a material practice that has its architecture and locality, in order to map the local ecology in which it exists and upon which it acts. The method of deepfake machine fictioning can create an alternative embodiment of what Michael Mann terms “infrastructural power”[3]. The deepfake video produced in the project renders President Putin in an announcement on the news channel RT, stating claims that are unthinkable and incompatible with the contemporary Russian state. In the sixty-second deepfake video, Putin introduces the Crimean Bridge project as one of overt colonialism, executed with the support from the West. Contemporary political imaginations of Russia are intertwined with the figure of President Putin. Even if viewers’ imagination struggles to imagine Russia with any alternative government in place, the viewer and user of deepfake technology can subvert what figures of power represent in the political landscape.

Engagement with the deepfake is the core of my practice-based research of the Crimean Bridge - a colonial infrastructural project finished by the Russian state in 2019 to legitimise and to cement the annexation of Crimea. Infrastructures shape both the material network they control and the semiotic space they function in. “Poetic infrastructures” operate as “concrete semiotic and aesthetic vehicles […] loosened from technical function… They emerge out of and store within them forms of desire and fantasy and can take on fetish-like aspects that sometimes can be wholly autonomous from their technical function”[4]. The Crimean Bridge is an example of such a poetic infrastructure, displayed prominently on a full range of memorabilia produced by the Russian state. At the same time, the distinction between material and discoursive aspects of the Crimean Bridge is blurred. As an example of poetic infrastructure, it exists through/as governmental propaganda. Still, its media presence is based on the obsession with its materiality that goes beyond the visual merchandising and branding of its arches. This fetish-like aspect embraces all forms of media. There are exhibitions which promote touching the Bridge and experiencing it in virtual reality (see fig. 1), panoramic videos that enable the viewer to experience the Crimean Bridge remotely, and official statements that refute claims that the Bridge was photoshopped[5].


Fig. 1. Still from the reportage “Exhibition Dedicated to the Crimean Bridge Opened in GUM Store” by Izvestia, July 28, 2017, https://iz.ru/625202/video/v-gume-otkrylas-vystavka-posviashchennaia-krymskomu-mostu.

The obsession with material proof originates in the contemporary practice Russian state TV broadcasting that actively positions itself above the need to provide plausible evidence[6]. Sergey Sanovich notes that the monopoly Russian government has on all major channels allows for a drastic decrease in the quality of propaganda[7]. It nevertheless achieves a rising level of public distrust of government-affiliated news within Russia. This distrust is vital to understand the state’s need to foreground the material nature of the Crimean Bridge - the claim that the Bridge is not photoshopped is not surprising in the context of the government doctoring satellite images[8]. The Russian government does not use deepfakes, but rather the computationally simpler practice of ‘shallowfakes’ and other means of computational propaganda that exploit social media. The concept of shallowfakes, introduced by Sam Gregory, is useful as it helps to bring into question the term deepfake. Shallowfakes stand for editing tools that do not require deep learning[9]. The same time editing process of deepfakes is done with autoencoders, the type of neural network that might be considered as deep learning as well as shallow learning, depending on how the depth of the neural network is being measured[10]. Deepfakes, therefore, despite the root “deep” in the name, would be considered as shallowfakes by the authors of the “Deep Learning” book[11]. This brings us back to the immense continuity and overlap between the “conventional” means of imagery alteration and deepfakes. Post-truth discourse, based in the temporality of the political events happening in the West, leaves out Russia, as well as other countries whose political regimes get reduced to the term “undemocratic”, and its local relationship with the fake imagery that has not been revolutionised by the emergence of deepfakes. For example, the Amsterdam-based DeepTrace startup proposes to invent an ‘antivirus for deepfakes’ that ‘Re-establish trust in visual media’. Being uncritical of the hegemonic notion of Western democracy and the role that authenticity and truth production play within it, they declare that “Previously, no commonly available technology could have synthetically created this media with comparable realism, so we treated it as authentic by definition”[12]. In Russia, this technological revolution in propaganda has already happened in regards to computational propaganda. Faced with the competition on social media, the Russian state had to invest in effective outreach and engagement with the audience[13]. Fedor and Fredheim analysed the production of viral videos as a key social media infrastructure that allowed to present governmental propaganda online effectively[14]. In the case of the Crimean Bridge project, this virality was meant to be achieved through the social media content produced in the first person, animating the Bridge as an active entity (see fig. 2)[15].


Fig. 2. Still from the video “Crimean Bridge: New Year’s Greetings” by the Crimean Bridge YouTube Channel, December 30, 2018, https://youtu.be/u73LMjYvMhM.

This example, as well as the ones stated earlier, hint to something in the fetishism of the Crimean Bridge that speaks from the matter of the Bridge as a propaganda project. Discourse and matter cannot be easily disentangled here. This relation between discourse and materiality might be addressed through the notion of “intra-action”, proposed by Karen Barad[16]. It aims to contest “‘interaction,’ which assumes that there are separate individual agencies that precede their interaction”[17]. Intra-action signifies “the mutual constitution of entangled agencies” and questions the conventional notion of causality[18]. In the case of the Crimean Bridge, the Bridge’s materiality and the propaganda that is based on it do not “precede, but rather emerge through” each other[19]. They do not exist as individual elements. Its materiality is intra-active as it is both material and discoursive.

This intra-action might be illustrated with the process of the bridge’s construction. The idea of the creation of Crimean Bridge is born from the matter of the “territorial palimpsest”[20]. On the one hand, the idea to create a bridge would not exist without the Strait, separating Crimea from Russia. On the other hand, seismic activity in the area and its viscous soil constitute undesirable forms of land mobility in the area that makes it hostile to construction. This geology enables the desire of the bridge construction and combines it with complexity to realise such desire. Such land matter that is already discoursive-material becomes deployed in the discourse of Russian propaganda. The Russian State claims, on the one hand, that the Bridge must be constructed, and on the other, that overcoming environmental hostility is an integral part of the ideology of the project.

Engineering agencies that participate in its construction share this discourse. In an interview for a Russian scientific magazine, the director of the company that leads the Crimean Bridge’s construction says, “This type of [complex] facilities have always been and always will be the realisation of the best engineering solutions in transport construction,” demonstrably proud of the fact that his company can operate in such a dangerous environment[21]. He adds later that the construction of the bridge is inevitable: “Our task is to connect two shores, two regions⁠—Crimea and Kuban⁠—securely and on time. With a hundred-year warranty”[22]. Such discourse leads to significant changes in official engineering norms that would allow the construction, as well as practices of the development themselves[23]. Therefore, the bridge’s construction is not just a discoursive dimension of Russian propaganda that becomes materialised. Its construction exemplifies the whole process of the materiality of propaganda that influences the matter of the resulting Bridge. This example makes clear that propaganda exists through the mutual constitution⁠—intra-actions⁠—of various material-discoursive agencies.

This entanglement exposes propaganda to the vulnerabilities of its matter. As far as the infrastructure of the Bridge that is located in the Kerch Strait morphs into the media infrastructure, it is possible to exploit enormous symbolic power concentrated in the Crimean Bridge as a material object. Deepfake technology can create mediatic doppelgangers that have the ability to poison the material-discoursive loop of oppressive poetic infrastructures like the Crimean Bridge. Therefore, my practice-based research proposes a strategy of engagement with propaganda infrastructures in their complexity of being both virtual and physical. On the one hand, it illustrates the potential of virtually-based projects to affect the critical infrastructures, in terms of Anne Spice “infrastructures of invasion”[24], access to which would be intentionally obstructed. On the other, it shows the material limitations of virtual, namely computational, propaganda. My engagement with the deepfake technology exposed deepfake as an ambiguous category, both capacity and exceptional nature of which are usually overestimated. Focused on the issue of deepfake machine fictioning in the political landscapes that cannot be defined as post-truth, my work invites further critical investigation in deepfake technology as enabling a unique research perspective towards non-democractic political regimes.

Footnotes

[1] Rob Toews, “Deepfakes Are Going To Wreak Havoc On Society. We Are Not Prepared,” Forbes, May 25, 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/robtoews/2020/05/25/deepfakes-are-going-to-wreak-havoc-on-society-we-are-not-prepared/#4a7dc5077494

[2] David Burrows, and Simon O'Sullivan, Fictioning: the myth-functions of contemporary art and philosophy, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019), chap. 23, Kindle.

Katherine Hayles, How we think: digital media and contemporary technogenesis, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), as cited in Burrows & O'Sullivan, 2019.

[3] Mann, Michael, “The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results,” European Journal of Sociology 25, no. 2 (1984): 185–213. doi:10.1017/S0003975600004239.

[4] Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure”, Annual Review of Anthropology 42, no. 1 (21 October 2013): 329.

[5] Izvestia, “Exhibition Dedicated to the Crimean Bridge Opened in GUM Store,” July 28, 2017, https://iz.ru/625202/video/v-gume-otkrylas-vystavka-posviashchennaia-krymskomu-mostu; Most.Life, “Facts and Myths About the Crimean Bridge,” 2018, https://www.most.life/multimedia/infografika/pravda-i-mify-pro-krymskij-most/;

Russia Today, “Crimean Bridge 360,” YouTube video, 02:06, December 29, 2017 https://youtu.be/IH1gaRt9ohU.

[6] Alexey Kovalev, “Russia’s Blogging Revolution,” The Guardian, September 24, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/sep/24/russia-blogging-revolution.

[7] Sergey Sanovich, “Russia: The Origins of Digital Misinformation,” in Computational propaganda: political parties, politicians, and political manipulation on social media, ed. Woolley, Samuel C., and Philip N. Howard (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 24-26.

[8] Eliot Higgins, “New July 17th Satellite Imagery Confirms Russia Produced Fake MH17 Evidence,” Bellingcat, June 12, 2015, https://www.bellingcat.com/news/uk-and-europe/2015/06/12/july-17-imagery-mod-comparison/.

[9] Sam Gregory, “Deepfakes Will Challenge Public Trust in What’s Real. Here’s How to Defuse Them,” Defusing Disinfo, February 19, 2019, https://defusingdis.info/2019/02/19/deepfakes-will-challenge-public-trust-in-whats-real-online-heres-how-to-defuse-them/.

[10] Alan Zucconi, “Understanding the Technology Behind DeepFakes,” March 14, 2018, https://www.alanzucconi.com/2018/03/14/understanding-the-technology-behind-deepfakes/.

[11] Ian Goodfellow, Yoshua Bengio, and Aaron Courville, Deep learning. (Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 2017), 8-9.

[12] Henry Ajder, Giorgio Patrini, Francesco Cavalli, and Laurence Cullen, “The State of Deepfakes: Landscape, Threats, and Impact,” (September 2019): Foreword.

[13] Sergey Sanovich, “Russia: The Origins of Digital Misinformation,” in Computational propaganda: political parties, politicians, and political manipulation on social media, ed. Woolley, Samuel C., and Philip N. Howard (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 24-26.

[14] Julie Fedor and Rolf Fredheim, “We need more clips about Putin, and lots of them:” Russia’s

State-Commissioned Online Visual Culture,” Nationalities Papers, 45(2) (2017), 161–181.

[15] Crimean Bridge, “Crimean Bridge: New Year’s Greetings,” YouTube video, 00:30, December 30, 2018, https://youtu.be/u73LMjYvMhM.

[16] Karen Michelle Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway, (Durham, NC, Chesham: Duke University Press, 2007), 33.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Thomas J. Sigler, “Panama as Palimpsest: The Reformulation of the ‘Transit Corridor’ in a Global Economy,” Int J Urban Reg Res, 38 (2014): 886-902. doi:10.1111/1468-2427.12132

[21] Victor Galas, “The Kerch Bridge: Engineering Safety from Project to Realisation,” Interview by Enginerring Safety, no 3, (May - June 2016), https://territoryengineering.ru/konstruirovanie-buduschego/kerchenskij-most-inzhenernaya-zashhita-ot-proekta-do-realizatsii/.

[22] Victor Galas, “The Kerch Bridge: Engineering Safety from Project to Realisation,” Interview by Enginerring Safety, no 3, (May - June 2016), https://territoryengineering.ru/konstruirovanie-buduschego/kerchenskij-most-inzhenernaya-zashhita-ot-proekta-do-realizatsii/.

[23] Eli Belenson, “Керченский мост. Хроника грядущей трагедии. Непутёвые заметки гидрогеолога,” [‘The Kerch Bridge. Chronicles of the upcoming tragedy. Notes from the hydrogeologist.’] Facebook, (October 9, 2018), https://bit.ly/2TUIqjR.

[24] Spice, Anne. “Fighting Invasive Infrastructures.” Environment and Society 9, no. 1 (September 1, 2018): 40–56. https://doi.org/10.3167/ares.2018.090104.


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  • Izvestia. “Exhibition Dedicated to the Crimean Bridge Opened in GUM Store.” July 28, 2017, https://iz.ru/625202/video/v-gume-otkrylas-vystavka-posviashchennaia-krymskomu-mostu;

  • Larkin, Brian. “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42, no. 1 (21 October 2013): 327–43.

  • Kovalev, Alexey. “Russia’s Blogging Revolution.” The Guardian, September 24, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2010/sep/24/russia-blogging-revolution.

  • Mann, Michael. “The Autonomous Power of the State: Its Origins, Mechanisms and Results.” European Journal of Sociology 25, no. 2 (1984): 185–213. doi:10.1017/S0003975600004239.

  • Most.Life. “Facts and Myths About the Crimean Bridge,” 2018, https://www.most.life/multimedia/infografika/pravda-i-mify-pro-krymskij-most/.

  • Russia Today. “Crimean Bridge 360.” YouTube video, 02:06, December 29, 2017 https://youtu.be/IH1gaRt9ohU.

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