by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Tsai Ing-wen/Facebook
THE ISSUE OF “deepfakes” has been widely discussed in Taiwan after YouTuber “Xiao Yu” was found to be responsible for a Telegram group used to sell, commission, and circulate “deepfake” porn videos of women, who were mostly public figures. Xiao Yu, whose real name is Zhu Yu-chen, was subsequently taken into custody. Xiao Yu is primarily known for humor videos, though some of his viral stunts have caused controversy in the past.
The public response to the incident was large enough that no less than President Tsai Ing-wen would comment on the matter, drawing attention to the issue of deepfakes with a post on her Facebook. The Telegram group was previously detailed by an investigative report from Mirror Media that was originally released in May, which became widely circulated again after the arrest came to light.
Facebook post by Huang Jie regarding her lawsuit with the other victims of the case
In particular, the group operated by combining the faces of women with porn actresses in adult videos. This includes public figures such as influencers Mrs. Science, Zamy Ding, and female politicians including Kao Chia-yu and Huang Jie. Members of the group could vote on their choice of the next public figure to make adult videos using the faces of, or commission the group to make videos of certain individuals, so long as there were enough photographs to use as material for the deepfake video. For some, this included individuals trying to make “revenge porn” videos of exes, or even their current partners.
Between four different groups that formed the network, there were around 8,000 users, who would pay an entrance fee of between 100 NT and 400 NT to join. As a result, the group would have generated at least 2,779,600 NT in income.
The report interviewed legal and cybersecurity experts regarding deepfakes, with minister without portfolio and Executive Yuan spokesperson Lo Bing-cheng pointing to how existing laws lag behind the development of technology, with punishments for deepfakes remaining relatively light, and notions of sexual violence or harassment failing remaining having failed to adapt to digital technology. Likewise, cybersecurity experts pointed to how deepfake technology was advancing, making it harder to distinguish between deepfakes and real videos, and that producing deepfakes would likely become easier in the future through apps. The report also suggested that compared to other countries in the region, deepfake technology was relatively advanced in Taiwan.
To this extent, the report also interviewed women who deepfake videos had been made of and how they felt about it. Many of those interviewed discussed feelings of discomfort, in not knowing if individuals they met had watched the video, as well as how this would be used to target them publicly, to affect their images. For example, after the release of such a video, some individuals discussed not knowing whether to issue a public disavowal, since this would draw more attention to the video.
Last year in October, influencer Zamy Ding released a video about having discovered a deepfake video of herself and entered the group used for distributing deepfake videos to investigate, publicizing the results of what she found. Ding also interviewed a friend of hers who had a sex video released by an ex regarding the emotional effects of such acts of “revenge porn”. Following Ding’s video, the Telegram group made deepfake videos using Ding’s face free to view.
Zamy Ding’s video about the deepfake Telegram groups
Xiao Yu was arrested in New Taipei, but later arrested on 500,000 NT bail. Huang Jie has also announced that she and at least nine other victims of deepfake videos produced through the Telegram group would be filing a joint lawsuit against Xiao Yu.
Certainly, the incident has drawn greater attention to the issue of deepfakes, and the potential for harm caused by the new technology. That being said, one notes that more generally, this is a more deeply issue, not simply one caused by advancements in technology.
Problems regarding misogyny and sexism are rife in the Taiwanese media, particularly in sexist coverage of female public figures, such as celebrities or politicians. In recent memory, an ETToday journalist was arrested for taking inappropriate photos of female flight attendants during a 2019 strike, and circulating the photos online, receiving a relatively light sentence. Likewise, Apple Daily’s report on Huang Jie’s lawsuit included sexualized photos of some of the claimants.
While deepfake technology may prove a new way of targeting public figures, the media is in itself already deeply complicit in this phenomenon, normalizing cultural attitudes that allow for the production and consumption of deepfakes. In this sense, deepfakes are only a symptom of a more deeply rooted issue in Taiwanese society.