Article on “Shallow Fakes” Explores Societal Costs of Casual Online Deception

Feb. 13, 2024
Phone with social media apps

You’ve probably heard of deepfakes, highly convincing but false AI-generated images often used to spread misinformation, but what about shallow fakes?

Albertini Antognini headshot

A new multidisciplinary article co-written by James E. Rogers Professor of Law Albertina Antognini and Milton O. Riepe Professor of Law & Distinguished Legal Scholar Andrew Keane Woods for Penn State Law Review explores the risks of the seemingly innocuous ways in which social media encourages casual deception. The article, titled “Shallow Fakes,” combines Antognini’s expertise in family law and critical legal frameworks with Woods’ expertise in the law of technology.

In the article, Antognini and Woods define “shallow fakes” as “superficial, commonplace deceptions about one’s self-presentation online.” This includes everything from Instagram photo filters to taking a selfie in a sandbox to mislead viewers into believing you are at the beach.

Deception, identity and democracy

Andrew Woods headshot

According to Antognini, the harm of casual deception isn’t often taken seriously. “It’s related to beauty and so it’s seen as shallow and not worthy of serious study,” she says. “Also, many of the issues we describe affect women, people of color; they’re not big, ‘masculine’ national security questions. 

But Woods and Antognini believe shallow fakes warrant serious attention. The article is a convergence of issues including mental health, gender, race, and the nature of democracy.

The article takes the position that, rather than empowering users to adopt their own identities, “users are under enormous pressure to conform to the standards dictated by the platforms.” This includes filters that encourage a certain image, which is often gendered and racialized. “With race, as with gender,” the piece argues, “digital tools appear to cheapen and flatten user diversity.” 

The article also considers the implications for democracy and public discourse if deception is the stock-in-trade. “We establish a lot of circumstantial evidence [for] a plausible story about how that basic fraud at the heart of social media is connected to some of the big societal ills that are tied to making it really hard to operate in democracy,” Woods says.

According to Antognini, one of the main goals of the article is simply to describe and draw attention to the concept of shallow fakes, along with the potential costs to individuals and society. The article also advocates for further transparency by social media companies and discusses how existing or new consumer protection regulations could be applied to shallow fakes.

Looking to the online future

Antognini and Woods are the parents of a two-year-old daughter. The article came about in part from their conversations about her online future. “I go online, and, wow, everyone looks the same,” Antognini remarks. “I really wouldn’t want our daughter to go online and think, ‘This is the way that you are meant to be beautiful, these images are the only way that you could be happy with your look [and] with your life.’ So much of it is just unrealistic.”

“Before we wrote the paper, I was thinking about global tech issues and [Antognini] was interested in gender dynamics, just totally different worlds,” Woods recalls. “And we realized that Instagram is the confluence of those worlds.”