A detained official and former chief minister of the Yangon region, Phyo Min Thein, appeared on Myawaddy TV, a television network owned and operated by the Myanmar military, on Tuesday. He confessed that he offered bribes to ousted leader Aung San Suu Kyi—or so it seemed.
There was immediate outcry. Journalists and scholars who have met and spoken with Phyo Min Thein noted that the speech in the video did not sound like his real voice. Amateur sleuths and netizens debated whether he was a victim of a deepfake production, where bogus audiovisual content is generated by utilizing deep learning techniques.
“I’ve met U Phyo Min Thein dozens of times and I agree this doesn’t sound like his voice at all,” said historian Thant Myint U on Twitter. Naung Kham, editorial assistant for Channel NewsAsia who has interviewed the former chief minister echoed the sentiment and tweeted, “The voice I hear from the video is different from what I remember.”
I’ve met U Phyo Min Thein dozens of times and I agree this doesn’t sound like his voice at all. He and all other political prisoners should be released immediately. https://t.co/U1PjWrSYwN
— Thant Myint-U (@thantmyintu) March 23, 2021
‘A forced confession’
Even though many viewers in Myanmar and the rest of Southeast Asia are convinced that Phyo Min Thein’s face has been lifted and mapped to a different individual for the video aired by Myawaddy, one expert said the evidence was not conclusive.
Sam Gregory, program director at Witness, focuses on the intersection of video, tech, and human rights, specializing in deepfakes. He told KrASIA that the video might be “a forced confession read from a teleprompter.”
“People viewing the video are concerned that it is one of two types of deepfake. They wonder if it is a face swap or more likely a ‘lip sync dub’ where the lips and lower face of the chief minister are made to match an alternative soundtrack of an imposter,” he said. “In the lower-res versions of the video, it also sometimes appears as if he is completely out of sync with the audio and raises the question of whether the audio is just a soundtrack on top.”
However, Gregory pointed out that it is difficult to perform analysis to determine whether the clip is a deepfake because the video quality is too low. He suggested this could be a deliberate attempt by Myawaddy to “hide digital fakery.”
“The audio remains challenging since people definitely say that it doesn’t sound like him,” Gregory said. “This would benefit from additional audio analysis, but we should also note that he’s speaking under duress, from a teleprompter and in a bare room, so this will impact audio quality as compared to an interview on TV.”
In the video, Phyo Min Thein (or his likeness) says that he gave former State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi a large sum of cash, gold bars, and silk, Reuters reported. The military has accused the former national leader of corruption. Her lawyers have denied the allegation.
Since the military staged a coup on February 1, thousands of people have hit the streets across Myanmar for protests against the junta. Security forces have deployed brutal tactics to suppress largely peaceful demonstrations, killing at least 250 people, according to data compiled by human rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
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Deepfake detection remains difficult
Viewers used a deepfake analysis site called Deepware.ai to probe the veracity of Phyo Min Thein’s televised confession. The result? There’s a 90% chance that his primetime appearance is generated by an algorithm, the site says.
But Gregory cautions against using this probability as justification. “Although some of the commercially available deepfake detectors indicate that it’s a deepfake with high probability, and those results are being shared widely online, you cannot make a judgement on a high public-interest video on the basis of these alone, particularly as the videos are low-resolution and compressed, which makes detection harder,” he said.
Although many viewers have pointed out that the lips of the former minister (or his likeness) did not move naturally, Gregory said this may be due to the video’s compression. “Practically speaking, it is more likely that the words are not digitally inserted in the minister’s mouth, but forced upon him via coercion or threats.”
Deepfake or not, Phyo Min Thein is now a meme in Myanmar. One video uploaded by a Facebook user uses the politician’s visage in a Wombo clip, where he bobs along to the beat of a song.
The accessibility of deepfake tools does more than proliferate audio feeds and videos that are fabricated with deceitful intent. “One big harm in contexts like Myanmar is the ability to undermine a true video by claiming it’s false, and the way manipulated media can be used to inflame religious and ethnic conflicts,” Gregory said.
As the civil strife in Myanmar intensifies, tech platforms of all shapes and sizes are being co-opted as part of the fight too.