An Italian satirical news show stirred up controversy on Sept. 23 when it broadcast several deepfake videos showing Italian politicians doing and saying silly things. Deepfake is an AI technique used to make fake videos that look incredibly lifelike. People have been especially concerned about one of these videos, which shows an realistic simulation of former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi insulting other Italian politicians.
On Sept. 23, the Italian satirical news show Striscia la notizia (“the News Slither” in English), which is broadcast on private channel Canale 5, posted a video showing a fake Matteo Renzi. In reality, the show used deepfake technology to superimpose Renzi’s face onto the body of an actor. The result is a fake video that seems incredibly realistic.
The video was posted in full on the show’s website, but it was a shorter excerpt posted on Twitter that really got people talking.
The deepfake video refers to Renzi's decision Sept. 17 to leave the Democratic Party and form his own party. In the parody, the supposed Renzi is seen talking when he thinks he is off air. He discusses the reaction of various politicians, including Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte; Luigi Di Maio, leader of the Five Star Movement; and Italy's president, Sergio Mattarella. We have translated an excerpt:
Hi, darling! Hello! [He makes a gesture with his hand.] You should have seen his face! You should have seen Conte’s face when I told him that I was leaving. He made this face. [He grimaces.] No! I said: "Guys! Sorry, I’m leaving!”
That guy, Conte. Conte has an idiot’s face, it’s… for the love of God! Conte… here! [He makes a rude gesture, the so-called “Italian salute” or “bras d’honneur”.]
Di Maio… here! [He makes the same rude gesture.] Him, too.
Zingaretti, Calenda and D'Alema… Here, here, here! [He makes the same gesture.]
Then, there is my dear President Mattarella… [He makes a farting noise.
Some users didn't realize it was a parody
The video is so outrageous that it is clearly a parody, but deepfake technology makes it look incredibly realistic. So when people started sharing it online, claiming that it was a real video, quite a few social media users fell for it and were outraged by what they saw as Renzi’s bad behavior.
It’s important to note that these tweets were not widely shared and most people on Italian social media who commented on the video noted that it was a parody. Still, the release of this video was cause for concern for some.
Journalist Massimo Gramellini, from the daily newspaper Corriere della Serra, wrote an article that was extremely critical of this video:
Not only can deepfakes destroy someone’s reputation, but these sophisticated and instantaneous ways of manipulating reality reach millions of users who aren’t prepared for what they are seeing. Deepfakes end up making people both skeptical and gullible at the same time. We doubt everything yet also believe in something, often something entirely far-fetched.
Show: "We like to provoke"
The France 24 Observers team reached out to Striscia la notizia, who said that the video was produced as part of a competition for audio-visual professionals, without giving more details. The programme stood by their choice to make and broadcast the video:
We like to provoke fans of political correctness and we do it with some success. In this case, we held a press conference in front of dozens and dozens of journalists to announce what we were going to be broadcasting and saying it was a worrying form of technology. During the program, the presenter clearly says "Of course it’s not him,” and the name of the actor who played Renzi appears in the credits. But quite a few people fell for it.
Striscia is an "educational" prorgramme which over the past 32 years has numerous times unmasked false and misleading information reported by journalists and official TV programs. No one was ever punished for these errors. That kind of impunity is the real danger.
Surprising support from Renzi himself
In a surprising move, Renzi himself offered his support for Striscia and the parody. He posted a message on Instagram praising what he called “a perfect imitation” and offering his compliments to Striscia for the video.
But Renzi’s comments were met with criticism by those who said he was taking deepfakes too lightly and, the next day, Renzi apologized on Facebook, promising to never “underestimate the disastrous consequences of this technique”.
"This programme is not taking the deepfake problem seriously enough”
David Puente, an Italian journalist who specialises in verification, wrote an article on the site OpenOnline about the debate.
It’s the first time that a deepfake has been broadcast on Italian television. I got a huge number of emails from people asking me to look into whether this video was real or not.
The people working on this show might think that they adequately warned their viewers but a lot of people don’t know what a deepfake is, even today. And the big problem is that on their website, they used a clickbait title to get people to click on the video [Editor’s note: The title is "Matteo Renzi off-mic, the incredible imagination of the leader of the Democratic Party, but is it him or not?"].
The show also posted two other deepfakes, one of former interior minister Matteo Salvini and another of President Sergio Mattarella. But these two were not as good as the Renzi video.The show also released a parody of League party head Matteo Salvini (seen above), and a parody of Italy's president.
Clearly, this type of video is dangerous because it is really easy to take it out of its context and pass it off as a real video. I’m pretty sure that, like lots of false videos, this one is going to resurface in a few years and people will think it is real and that Renzi really said these obscenities. I think this programme is not taking the deepfake problem seriously enough.