A viral video speculating that Joe Biden is either dead, multiple people, a deepfake, or some combination of all of those has been viewed more than a million times on Twitter.
The original post is from the Twitter account for the band Five Times August, led by Dallas-area musician Bradley James Skistimas. The account has 91,000 followers. He posted two pictures of Biden from two different occasions, giving two separate addresses—one about gas prices, and another from remarks given at a conference—next to each other. “Two videos posted within a couple of hours of each other. I mean… you tell me what’s going on here… 🧐,” the post said.
@FiveTimesAugust followed this up later with a video composite of the two videos that these images were taken from, that cuts back and forth between those appearances one sentence at a time. The video from @FiveTimesAugust has now been viewed more than a million times. The eyes appear quite different and, if you’ve been primed to believe it, they appear to show two different-looking versions of what is supposed to be the same man. “Both supposedly from today, both only a few hours apart,” the tweet said. “What the hell is happening here?”
The video has been used as “evidence” of all sorts of things by various people: that Biden is now being played by various actors (“2 more new Joe Bidens have dropped, to go along with the previous 4?” one tweet says); that he is a deepfake (“my eye can detect the uncanny valley instantly. This is 100% deepfake technology. They pasted Biden’s face on an actor. I’d bet my career on it,” a right-wing political cartoonist tweeted); and that there is simply something off (you figure it out, the tweets suggest).
Much of this is framed through the lens of “just asking questions” and while there is perhaps an infinitesimally small chance that everyone on Earth has been tricked by a highly complex Weekend at Bernies type conspiracy made possible through a technology that has been used largely to abuse women, there is no reason to believe this is actually the case. But let’s move through the basics here and break it down.
First, there’s no evidence that these videos were filmed on the same day “hours apart” as Five Times August claimed. The lighter video where Biden appears to have wide unblinking eyes is from a video the White House posted on July 25 where the President addressed the NOBLE conference. The second video is more zoomed in and comes from a Twitter post on Biden’s account addressing high gas prices a day later.
The fact Biden is wearing different clothing is evidence the videos could have come from different days or changed clothes, not evidence of a conspiracy.
Next, the lighting in the room is completely different because they were likely filmed at different times under different circumstances. One video is a series of wide shots meant to be posted to YouTube and run on TV. The other is a zoomed in video clip meant to be shared on social media.
“The difference in Biden’s overall appearance between the two videos appears to be just a result of different lighting in the room,” Hany Farid, image forensics expert and professor at University of California, Berkeley told Motherboard. And in the original video from the conference, he noted, “you can clearly see that the claims being made about blinking and other artifacts are unfounded.”
According to Giancarlo Fiorella, an investigator at Bellingcat, to achieve the uncanny valley effect of the side by side comparisons, an editor had to zoom in on Biden’s face in the YouTube video. Software zooms famously distort images. Fiorella noted this when Motherboard spoke with him about the videos. “[Zooming in] reduces the quality and maybe accounts for some of the ‘uhh, is this guy ok?’ effect,” he said. “I bet if you zoom in on anyone’s face when they’re talking they’d look weird, sorta like an uncanny valley effect.”
You can see the effect replicated in a shortened version of the longer, made-for-YouTube video that Biden’s team released on his Twitter account. This 17 second clip, which is actually a clip of two different moments from the same speech, is the source of the “Biden doesn’t blink” portion of the conspiracy theory. In the full 11 minute speech, however, Biden does a normal amount of blinking.
When deepfakes first came on the scene in late 2017, after Motherboard found someone tinkering with face-replacing AI algorithms that put celebrities’ faces in porn, one of the biggest concerns experts raised was about the threat to our shared reality: Once the public can call into question the authenticity of every image and video that’s disseminated online, it’s very hard to convince people that anything is trustworthy, anymore.
Deepfakes arrived at a time when people’s trust in the media was already crumbling. Now that this technology has fully permeated the collective consciousness and our vocabulary, anytime something looks slightly “off” or enters the uncanny valley, it’s easy for people to cry “deepfake!” and seed even more distrust. This isn’t even the first time people have made up a conspiracy theory about Biden being deepfaked; in 2020, someone made a crappy face-edited video of the president wagging his tongue. It was clearly fake, but it was pretty funny, people lost their minds over it and called it a deepfake, when it clearly wasn’t AI generated or even using his whole face.
Another problem experts foresaw with deepfakes early on is confirmation bias: the idea that we see what we want to see, and believe what we already lean toward. We see this play out time and again with manipulated images and videos (and text, and rumors) concerning political figures. In 2019, an altered video of Nancy Pelosi where her voice was slowed down went viral, making her sound drunk or on the verge of collapse or whatever your own bias wanted to attribute the slurring speech to. People seemed to believe it. We don’t need complex, technically advanced AI technology to believe obviously ridiculous, implausible things.
The Five Times August account pulled the 2019 Pelosi trick a day after his initial post. “Watch this at ½ speed and listen to how slurred his speech truly is,” he said above a video of a slow motion Biden. Which, yes, of course. Everyone sounds like they’re slurring their speech when you slow them down to half speed.
Now we have a video and an accompanying conspiracy theory that the White House is capable of hiding a dead president behind said technology, and people believe that, too. Part of the “proof” people are presenting as this being deepfaked footage is that Biden doesn’t blink enough; this comes from researchers years ago who scrambled to find ways to detect and prevent political deepfakes—a problem that, even five years later, still does not exist in the U.S.—holding up “not blinking” as a way to spot a fake. But deepfakes blink now. The technology progressed and made it possible, pushed forward in part by the very research that tried to foil it.