The Starmer deepfake affair – letter to the editor

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

Dear Editor,

An element of doubt is insidious, I thought, having read about the ‘recording’ posted on X (formerly twitter), purporting to be a tirade from Sir Keir Starmer, effing and blinding at his staff because they forgot to bring his tablet (as in iPad, not paracetamol).

Labour staffers were taken somewhat by surprise, it would seem, at being asked to address its veracity, (by which time it had received over 700,000 views), but they categorically denied that the ‘recording’ is genuine, and even the current Tory minister responsible for online safety – Tom Tugendhat – and former minister Sir Simon Clarke have enjoined people to ignore it as a fake. Some people, however, will undoubtedly not see – or will dismiss – these denials.

“This afternoon top Tory Sir Simon Clarke came to Sir Keir Starmer’s rescue, telling his followers to “ignore” the deep fake video. He added that it’s a “reminder why the upcoming AI summit organised by the Prime Minister is so important”. He said: “From the Slovakian elections a few days ago to today’s incident, this is a new threat to democracy.”

The Express

It is hard, I think, to imagine Starmer losing his rag in this way: he and the shadow cabinet seem increasingly unable to say anything remotely controversial; but this year’s Labour Party Conference will probably be the last before the general election, and Starmer and his cohort must be under a degree of stress. So it’s not inconceivable, perhaps, that such an incident might actually have taken place. If genuine, it is not especially damaging (particularly compared with the behaviour of other politicians), but it is slight enough to be feasible, which is where the element of doubt creeps in.

Although many news outlets have dismissed it as a ‘deepfake’, there will be people who take it at face value.  (“It was in the Daily Mail so it must be true” is a family joke: my late in-laws used to believe every word.) Additionally, many young people apparently never look at news media at all, but rely on TikTok, Facebook and the like instead: so we must accept that manipulated online material could have a potentially-huge impact upon people’s views – and their voting choices.

This, and the infinite life and reach of anything online, must be invaluable to anyone wishing to subvert the truth, for whatever reason. We have all heard of conspiracy theories: perhaps this is where many ‘deepfakes’ lead. Many of these theories are ridiculous, but, for example, it seems that at least 12 per cent (mostly Trump supporters!) of Americans still believe the moon landings didn’t really happen but were staged, and filmed by – of course – Stanley Kubrick. Perhaps this was the first deepfake?!

The misuse of artificial intelligence could have huge impacts on democracy, and whilst the EU is obviously alarmed enough to have been preparing counter-measures for some time, here in Brexit Britain – despite many warnings from AI experts – the government appears only now to be catching up. The technology is moving so fast that I fear it will be left up to individuals to decide whether or not something we see or hear online is real.

I hope we reach the correct conclusions.

Anna Andrews

East Devon