The Trump AI Deepfakes Had an Unintended Side Effect

The Trump AI Deepfakes Had an Unintended Side Effect

The former president is fighting with the police. He’s yelling. He’s running. He’s resisting. Finally, he falls, that familiar sweep of hair the only thing rigid against the swirl of bodies that surround him.

When I first saw the images, I did a double take: The event they seem to depict—the arrest of Donald Trump—has been a matter of feverish anticipation this week, as a grand jury decides whether to indict the former president for hush-money payments allegedly made on his behalf to the adult-film star Stormy Daniels. (Trump, that canny calibrator of public expectation, himself contributed to the fever.) Had the indictment finally come down, I wondered, and had the arrest ensued? Had Trump’s Teflon coating—so many alleged misdeeds, so few consequences—finally worn away? Pics or it didn’t happen, people say, and, well, here were the pics.

My wonderings were brief, though. Looking more closely, I noticed the blurry unreality of the people in the images: the faces that seemed, up close, only loosely face-like; the hands with not-quite fingers; the extra appendages; the missing ones. The images were not photos, but rather the results of artificial intelligence responding to that most human of prompts: impatience. Speculation over the possibility of a “perp walk” grew so intense that the British journalist Eliot Higgins decided to imagine the event using the text-to-image generator Midjourney. (His inputs: “Donald Trump falling over while getting arrested. Fibonacci Spiral. News footage.”) Higgins posted the AI’s responses on Twitter, making the just-a-joke fakery clear. Soon, they went viral. Some posts sharing the images acknowledged their AI origins; others were notably less clear. “#BREAKING: Donald J. Trump has been arrested in #Manhattan this morning!” one post read, teetering between credulity and parody. The result was an absurdity fit for the era that is shaped, still, by Trump. The AI renderings, meant to capture him at the moment of accountability, instead serve as reminders of his ongoing power. Attention is the one currency that Donald Trump has never squandered. The images of his “comeuppance” have now been viewed more than 5 million times.

The crucial element of the images is not the fact that they are misleading. It is that they are melodramatic. They present Trump’s imagined arrest in maximally cinematic terms: the fight, the flight, the fall. They lie with such swagger that, even after you realize the fakery, it becomes difficult to look away. The images channel one of the showman’s abiding insights: that spectacle, wielded well, will not merely complement reality. It will compete against it. The deepfakes, those hyperreal renderings of a thing that hasn’t happened, are arguably harmless fun, obvious jokes that bide time until real news breaks. But attention being what it is, the images put a dent in any events to come. They are agents of preemptive—and false—catharsis. Trump’s arrest hasn’t happened. Nonetheless, we’ve already seen it.

“Behind closed doors at Mar-a-Lago,” The New York Times reported this week, “the former president has told friends and associates that he welcomes the idea of being paraded by the authorities before a throng of reporters and news cameras.” He has wondered how he should play the scene—should he smile for the cameras?—and how the audience of the American public might take in the show. This speculation, too, is revealing: “We likely won’t see a classic perp walk,” my colleague David Graham noted yesterday; still, the notion of a scenic arrest has been a common one across the media coverage of Trump’s legal woes.

[Read: The cases against Trump: A guide]

As a broader news story, the probability of the former president’s arrest has similarly pitted the doubtful-but-cinematic against the probable-but-dull. Reports about the potential event have been peppered with artful cushions and caveats (“likely indictment,” “expected arrest,” etc.), vacillating between the conditional and the future tenses. Would it happen on Tuesday, as Trump himself had predicted? (No.) How about Wednesday? (No again.) Trying to keep track of it all, as a news consumer, meant being caught in unending whiplash between what has already happened, what will happen, and what merely might.

The AI images neatly channel the maybes. They also capture one of the tensions at play in an event that is both an ongoing legal proceeding and an anticipated spectacle: the public desire for catharsis chafing against the prosecutor’s desire for a winning case. Both desires, though, play games of expectation. Both rely, in their way, on shock in the moment and sustained attention in the long run. And when cinematic images are pitted against dutiful, uncertain realities, you can usually predict the victor. The pictures are very obviously fake; to see them at all, though, is to have an emotional reaction to them. If you’re one of those millions who have seen the fake arrest, the real one, if it happens, may seem like a letdown—a matter of been-there-done-that, already experienced, felt, filed away.

The hype cycle is a fickle thing. And now, as the fake images remind us, its movements can be shaped not only by human spectacles, but also by AI-generated ones. Donald Trump, wielder of fakeries, is broadly akin to AI in the threats he both poses and represents. And the images that claim to depict him in his moment of humble humanity hint at those commonalities. The savvy marketer and the savvy algorithm both eviscerate long-standing, and load-bearing, norms. They are both shocks to the system, in the near term and the long. They treat reality as merely the opening bid in an endless negotiation. And they highlight one of the truths that shapes American politics as readily as it shapes everything else: Shock is a finite resource. Because of that, even the specter of Trump’s arrest, deprived of its ability to surprise, can become the thing that Trump himself never seems to: old news.

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