Neptune Navigate Blog

Tips for online safety, security, and responsible digital citizenship for parents, kids, and families.

Synthetic Media: What Is and Is Not Real?

February 24, 2022

Synthetic media.  That’s a term that was new to me until today.  Synthetic media is “a catch-all term for the artificial production, manipulation, and modification of data and media by automated means, especially through the use of artificial intelligence algorithms, such as for the purpose of misleading people or changing an original meaning.”  Aka….a deepfake.  We are seeing these used more and more, especially in social media.  But in the new film being released on the life of Anthony Bourdain, three particular lines of synthetic audio are causing quite a stir. And those who were closest to him, are none too happy about it.  I have to admit, I never saw any of Anthony Bourdain’s shows.  Not because I didn’t like him, I never knew him. It’s just not my interest.  But for those who were his faithful followers and fans,  I can certainly understand why they would be so upset over the new documentary about his life.  Bourdain was, and still is, a well-known American celebrity chef and travel documentarian who took his own life in 2018.  In this documentary, Director Morgan Neville uses synthetic audio of Bourdain’s voice for a total of about 45 seconds.  Apparently, Neville failed to disclose the use of the three deepfakes in their  entirety, thus prompting an outcry from many of Bourdain’s friends and family members.  Admittedly, at least one of the lines came from a despairing  email Bourdain wrote to a friend.  He wrote it; he just never publicly voiced it.  So, should the re-creation and the way his words were used cause us to question the  ethical use of synthetic media? What if Neville had gained consent to use Bourdain’s words in this manner?  The director says he was granted permission by Bourdain’s inner circle to use the  A.I. generated voice overs.  But not everyone in that circle agrees.  What if Neville had disclosed his plan to use synthetic media prior to moving ahead with the project?  Does that make it ok?  For those who were close to Bourdain, that answer is a hard NO.  Here’s the bottom line.  All of this talk and hullabaloo has done nothing but bolster the interest in the documentary.  Whether you agree with the use of artificial intelligence or not, one fact cannot go unchallenged.  The average person has to be even more aware and cautious in everything they do online.  As deepfakes become more and more realistic, it becomes increasingly more difficult to spot them.  Whether it is part of a documentary or found on social media,  the consumer must always be on guard to spot false information.  And with fake news becoming so prevalent on social media, it’s a constant battle.  While I understand and often appreciate the effects and value of synthetic media in the entertainment industry, I think we need to really begin questioning where we need to draw the line in the sand.  Where is the line of what is ethical and not….and are there any consequences for crossing it?  As of now, there are no answers to these questions, but hopefully, as we continue to discuss,  we can get closer to finding them.