A Voting Rights Group Made Deepfakes of Dictators Warning About the Death of Democracy

The campaign focuses on voter suppression and misinformation that threatens open elections

Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un
Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un get the deepfake treatment in the campaign. RepresentUs
Headshot of Patrick Kulp

A voting rights group is broadcasting a warning about the state of American democracy by using a technology often feared for its own potential to subvert democracy.

A new campaign from nonprofit RepresentUs and agency Mischief features deepfakes of authoritarian leaders Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un issuing ominous pronouncements about the dangers of voter suppression and manipulated elections. The ads were set to air on the three major cable news channels in the Washington, D.C. area after the first presidential debate tonight, but the stations rejected the ads the night before. The videos will instead run on digital and social channels only.

The campaign has also enlisted celebrities Katy Perry, Orlando Bloom, Jennifer Lawrence, Ed Helms, Alyssa Milano and Kathy Griffin to boost the message on social media.

The group claims the campaign represents the first time that deepfakes will be used in political advertising on a major U.S. TV channel. While deepfakes are often discussed for their more nefarious potential uses in fabricating news footage or extortion crimes, brands have also been more recently warming up to the technology as a makeshift production method amid quarantine lockdowns.

In this case, Mischief co-founder and chief creative officer Greg Hahn said the technology was used as a way to grab attention in a media environment saturated with political messaging.

“There is so much noise in this political environment that people can be overwhelmed and left feeling it’s all out of their hands, there’s nothing they can do. Apathy is actually the intent of the noise. It was really critical to cut through all of that in a way that provokes,” Hahn said in a statement. “This is not a time for safe, passive ideas. We’re thrilled that RepresentUs turned to Mischief for this important project. We have an allergic reaction to safe and passive.”

The message of each deepfaked strongman focuses on threats to fair and open elections like gerrymandering districts, closing polling places and the spread of misinformation.

“America, you blame me for interfering with your democracy, but I don’t have to,” the deepfaked Putin says. “You are doing it to yourselves.”

Joshua Graham Lynn, co-founder and president at RepresentUs, said the authoritarian leaders were chosen to make a stark point about where a backslide of democracy could lead.

“For decades, America has been gerrymandered, votes have been suppressed and voters purged; money has taken over our political system. In 2020, we’re seeing it all come home to roost,” Lynn said in a statement. “By featuring two leaders who have a vested interest in the collapse of our democratic system, we are putting the American people face-to-face with just how fragile our democracy really is. We hope it inspires Americans to come together to fight for this one issue that unites us all.”

This story has been updated to reflect that the three major cable news channels rejected a local media buy after the first presidential debate.

@patrickkulp patrick.kulp@adweek.com Patrick Kulp is an emerging tech reporter at Adweek.