Pro-Israel news outlets ran ‘deepfake’ op-eds in ‘new disinformation frontier’

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Middle East Monitor  /  July 20, 2020

Pro-Israel news agencies have run “deepfake” op-eds, in what is said to be “a new disinformation frontier”. Details of the “hyper-realistic forgery” was uncovered by a Reuters report this week, which uncovered the mystery around the identity of Oliver Taylor.

Taylor has been writing for a number of well-known publications, including Israel National Newsthe Jerusalem Post, and the Times of Israel. However, his article in the US Jewish newspaper the Algemeiner, which accused a London based academic Mazen Masri and his wife, Palestinian rights campaigner Ryvka Barnard, of being “known terrorist sympathizers”, exposed his true identity.

Mystified by Taylor’s accusation, Masri and Barnard alerted Reuters to their suspicion over the anti-Palestinian writer. The senior lecturer in law said when he pulled up Taylor’s profile photo, he couldn’t put his finger on it, but he explained that something about the young man’s face “seemed off”.

It seems as though Masri had drawn the ire of Taylor over his work in late 2018 when the lecturer helped launch a lawsuit against the Israeli surveillance company NSO on behalf of alleged Mexican victims of the company’s phone hacking technology. The spyware company has been accused of being “deeply involved” in carrying out mobile phone hacks of 1,400 of its users.

Taylor’s identity was finally uncovered. Rather than being a real person, Taylor appears to be a “deepfake”, or a hyper-realistic forgery, created in part to criticise Mazen. Reuters interviewed six experts who conclude that it had the characteristics of forgery that would not be detectable to the naked eye.

In their report raising concerns over “the marriage of deepfakes and disinformation”, the Reuters report warned deepfakes like Taylor are “dangerous” because they undermined public discourse.

Taylor is just one of several deepfakes. Earlier this month, the Daily Beast, reported that 46 conservative news outlets, including some reporting on the Jewish community, were duped into publishing Middle East “hot takes” by 19 non-existent authors as part of a massive propaganda campaign that appears to have started in July 2019.

Only a few of the news outlets covering Israel are said to have removed articles that later turned out to deepfakes.