Merk Nguyen and Nyge Turner get real about being fake, particularly when it comes to imposter syndrome and ways the digital world can amplify feelings of fakeness, in this episode of Adult ISH. Writer L’Oreal Thompson Payton and YR Media CEO Kyra Kyles bring their bad mamajama advice to remind us all we’re deserving of our successes. Plus, YR Media’s Interactive team walks the co-hosts through the pros and cons of deepfakes. (And Nyge agrees to sell his voice for $150!) Be sure to follow our socials @yrAdultISH to stay connected.
Nyge: Has anyone called you fake before?
Merk: Yeah, but I think the person who calls me fake the most is myself, especially when it comes to social media. ‘Cause it’s, like, I use social as a way to fake how it is I’m actually doing versus how it is I want people to see me.
Nyge: Mm. Okay, well when’s the last time you did that?
Merk: It was probably … Well lately I’ve been posting on my Snapchat story me doing 22 pushups to highlight Veteran’s Suicide Awareness through the 22 pushup challenge. And I have some friends who will respond saying stuff like, “Wow! Oh my gosh, you’re so motivated! That’s awesome.”
Nyge: I mean, yeah! I seen you out there grinding, doing all them pushups. You even were asking me like, “Yo, what pushups highlight different places?” I was like “Nah, you really doing your thang!”
Merk: Right? Well, thank you. But that’s what you see but what you don’t know is that day was actually really hard for me mentally. So it’s like I’m faking it for myself so I can actually become it myself, you know? What about you? Has anyone called you out recently?
Nyge: For me, lately, it’s been dealing with older people. Like, nobody is specifically calling me out. But I know I’m being fake, because they’re always asking about marriage because I’m about to get married. They’re always like “Oh, are you ready?” And it’s like, “Uh.” That’s such a setup question, because if I say yes, it goes like, “Oh, you think you know everything. I can’t wait for you to come crawling back crying.” And then if I say no, then it’s like, “Well, why are you even getting married?” So it’s a setup. People just want to, like, rant and people just want to be negative. I’ve had people say things like, “Where do you work? How much do you make?” Like, “Is podcasting a real job. Are you going to be able to support?” Like, all that stuff.
Nyge: And it’s like, “Yo, if I was just doing, like, plumbing or a job that you knew about, you wouldn’t ask me questions like that. But because it is something that you don’t know, you feel like it’s your responsibility to vet me for my fiance.” And it’s like we’re talking about it in a lighthearted way, but it’s actually pretty hurtful when it comes down to it, because you’re being negative, you’re telling me I’m going to be, like, crawling back crying and feeling bad. And now I can’t go to you ever because you said I was gonna crawl back crying. Now I can’t ever crawl back crying to you! And I just have to, like, “X” you out of my life. Which is, you know … it’s bad. It’s unfortunate.
Merk: I see what you did as a defense mechanism. And that’s why we’re here on Adult ISH, produced by YR Media, a show where we defend ourselves by swerving these questions and showing that none of us are real. I’m Merk.
Nyge: And I’m Nyge. And today we’re getting into Fake ISH.
Merk: As we just got into, there are so many different kinds of fakeness we experience in our lives. There’s the deeper moments like Nyge and I’ve mentioned, but then there’s also lighter times like when I pranked people in high school by walking around in crutches and saying I hurt myself at a track meet. And that year people got to carry around my textbooks for me.
Nyge: Oh, that’s messed up.
Merk: Okay, yeah I know. But this one dude did call me out and was like, “Hey, you’re faking it.” And I’m like, “I’m not.” But I actually did hurt myself the next year at a track meet and was in a boot for a few weeks. So, I carried around my own textbooks that time.
Nyge: Yikesies. The story of the girl who cried crutch…
Merk: I know, I am fake. I will admit that.
Nyge: And that’s fine, because everyone listening is fake too. And I know everybody listening was like, “Oh, I’m not fake!” Yes you are fake. I wish you could see the face that I just made for you. But yes, you guys are fake and I know you’re fake and I don’t even know you. So I know you have a lot of fake stories just like us. But for now, Merk, let them know what we’re going to get into first in this episode.
Merk: Okay, first up on the plate is a roundtable about imposter syndrome. If you’ve ever struggled with self-doubt or a voice that tells you you’re not worthy of your successes, then our very special guests, Kyra Kyles and L’Oreal Thompson Payton, will give you ways to reframe that nonsense.
Nyge: We’re also gonna talk about another kind of fake that affects all of us, especially in today’s digital world.
Merk: Yes, later in this episode, our co-workers Nimah and Devin will tell us why some music artists like Jay-Z are beefing with deepfakes. Those are videos or audio made by artificial intelligence, that are indeed deeply fake. We’ll have a more in-depth convo on why those should be on our radar, even if we’re not on the Billboard 100.
Nyge: Not on the Billboard 100 yet.
Merk: Yeah, maybe one day … But for now, let’s get into our first segment.
Merk: Our first guest was the former editor-in-chief at EBONY. She’s been named as one of the Top 100 media executives on Folio magazine. She’s the master of keeping spirits high during Zoom meetings and sends the most spot-on GIFs. It’s the CEO of our very own YR Media, Kyra Kyles! Hey Kyra!
Kyra: Hey! Thank you for having me!
Nyge: And joining us from Chicago is L’Oreal Thompson Payton, a freelance writer and yoga-teacher-in-training whose words have been featured in Bustle, HelloGiggles, and Shondaland. She’s dedicated to uplifting Black women and girls, loves binge-watching Beyoncé videos, and is currently writing a book about overcoming impostor syndrome. Hey, L’Oreal! How are you?
L’Oreal: I’m great. Thank you so much for having me.
Nyge: It is an honor to have both of you here. So I want to start off with: you two know each other, right?
Kyra: That’s right. We were in the trenches together. Yes. We worked at Ebony and Jet’s holding company together. L’Oreal DM’d me. It went down in the DMs. We pretty much fell in professional love and I recruited her to join our team. We were just working arm in arm, just battling supremacy every day and keeping our spirits up. She’s amazing. So, yes.
Merk: So, L’Oreal, last we heard the working title of your book on imposter syndrome is: “Trust Your Dopeness: How to Stop Doubting Yourself and Make Shit Happen.” How do you come up with the title anyway?
L’Oreal: So, interestingly enough, another colleague of ours, Melissa Kimble, who is founder of Black Creatives on Twitter, had invited me to a Twitter chat for Ebony about helping Black girls. And I, being who I am, was very like, “Are you sure you want me? Is it me?” Like, I don’t know. There was another woman who runs a nonprofit here for Black girls and I was feeling like a fraud because I didn’t think that I was an expert or qualified enough to speak on this topic on the Twitter chat. And she gave me a pep talk in text basically that included that phrase. Basically, like, the point of it was to relax. You’ve got this. Trust your dopeness. You’re good. And I was like, “Yeah, yeah, you’re right.” And it stuck with me ever since. So shoutout to Melissa as well.
Nyge: That’s interesting. I recently had a bout with imposter syndrome and I didn’’t even know it was imposter syndrome. Somebody had to, like, kind of pull me aside in a meeting and be like, “Yo, what you’re feeling is … That’s that imposter stuff, man.”
L’Oreal: It’s real!
Nyge: And, you know, it’s something that was unexpected for me because I felt like I was worthy to be in those meetings. But the topic had kind of switched to, “How do we cater more towards Black voices?,” and things like that. And then, all of a sudden, I felt like I wasn’t qualified because I was like, “Woah, I can’t speak on behalf of everybody out there.” Like, yeah, that’s why I was like, “I don’t know if I’m being turned into this spokesperson,” But, yeah. It’s interesting how that can just pop up out of nowhere. Have either of you had, like, a run in with it when it had that intersection with race and imposter syndrome?
L’Oreal: When Kyra asked me to do the job. (laughs) ‘Cause, I mean, we’re talking Jet and Ebony here. Like, this is iconic. You grow up with this in your household. Like, it was on my grandmother’s coffee table. I wanted to be Jet Beauty of the Week, and I was very confident sliding into the DMs and freelancing. And when she was like, “Hey, I have this full time role.” Of course, I was like, “Yes.” And on the plane from Baltimore to Chicago, I was kind of like, “Oh, crap.” Like, “Am I Black enough for this?” Because, like, I went to high school, I was one of two Black girls in my all-girl Catholic school. I went to a predominately white institution for college and a lot of growing up internalized self-hate. Like, I was praying to God to make me white so I’d be beautiful in seventh grade. Like, that’s the reality of when … ‘Cause It was Britney Spears, it was Christina Aguilera. Black girl magic wasn’t a thing back then. And so here I am stepping into this role for this iconic Black publication. And I’m like, I mean, at the time, I wasn’t natural. I still was very much wearing a relaxer. I loved Justin Timberlake. (laughs) Like, I didn’t think that I was like…
Merk: Past tense.
L’Oreal: Yeah, I mean, Justin is Justin, so we’ll just keep going from there. Slightly problematic now, in my adult years, I recognize. But that was a very … That intersection with race and imposter syndrome? Yeah, for sure.
Kyra: See, that’s interesting, because I think I felt the opposite way. I grew up in a predominantly Irish Catholic neighborhood and, you know, going to school with other little children that weren’t Black, grabbing the braids, grabbing the beads, asking me if my skin could burn. Just ridiculous. But my mom really instilled in us … She taught in an African-American school on the south side of Chicago and she just instilled in us, “You guys are amazing. You go in there and you show them and don’t let them dim your shine or do anything like that.” And so my sister and I both just had a different attitude. We’re like, “Yeah, our beads. What about them? You’re mad because you don’t have any beads. Don’t grab our hair.” And we’re like, “Do we burn? No, we can hang out in the sun. Now what are you going to say?” Now, I know current wisdom tells us not to go out into the sun and do these things, but back then we were like, “We can go in the sun. What can you do?” We took kind of the opposite tact. And I did experience some of that. I mean, I experienced sometimes people saying, “Well, you grew up in this environment or that environment.” But I would say most of the hostility that I faced in the imposter syndrome that was trying to be forced upon me were from people who were white. And, you know, their whole thing is, “Why are you here? Why should we listen to you? You stick to this area. This is your expertise. You leave the rest of it to us and then we’ll tap you when we need you.” And I think I just was like a rebel. Like, my dad, my mother, they were not having it. So if we came home sounding like some sad, little sad sacks, they’d be like, “You’d better get out there and don’t you come back until you brought back victory.”
Nyge: Yeah. Merk, have you had that? Have you had that run-in with imposter syndrome?
Merk: Yeah. I don’t think I had it so much growing up, because in high school, and just how I always thought of myself, was a very confident person. I think most people, when they meet me, even today, they’re like, “Woah, you’re confident.” But I feel it everywhere in my life. Like, I’ve experienced, “Am I Catholic enough to be in this faith,” and I experience, “Am I smart enough to to be in this job?” I feel it in this job. You know, even preparing for interviews like this, sometimes I get really in my head. Like, for me, one of the worst fears is people calling me out for not being what I say that I am. And I let those kinds of anxieties almost dictate what I do sometimes.
Kyra: I’ll say this. I mean, there’s an opposite spectrum to this. And I think it’s important to note sometimes people take that too far. Like, they think they know everything. And I would never want to tip the scale. Like, I think there’s a big, big void between imposter syndrome and just being an obnoxious person that just no one can teach you anything. And I always try to make sure I’m not that person that just comes into a room and tries to suck all the air out of it. But what I do is I do watch those people and I listen to them. Half the time what they are saying makes little to no sense. That helps me because I’m like, “I can speak up. This person just said a whole lot of nothing.” (sarcastic) “I’d like to piggyback on that.” (normally) Don’t piggyback. What does that even mean? If someone said something, just nod. You don’t need to say what they said in your mouth. So, you know, I just look at people’s behavior. And I think being a journalist, observing and recognizing that there are many people with a big mouth that are never quiet, it helps me say, “Hey, I have something to say. I’m not going to let this person out talk me and everyone else in this space right now.”
Nyge: Yeah, try not to piggyback off of what Kyra… (laughs)
Kyra: No piggyback!
Nyge: But, yeah. For me, in high school and before that, I was kind of always labeled as a cocky person and people would always think I was way too overconfident and yada, yada, yada. And so, like, I’ve always tried to kind of humble myself so I didn’t get that label and so that I could look at things objectively and not just be this person who you can’t tell anything to. But in trying to humble myself, I kind of tore myself down a lot to the point where now I feel imposter syndrome. I feel like I’m not worthy of certain things when … I don’t know, I just can’t find that balance. But that actually kind of brings me to another question, and that’s: How about in times when you thought you were ready to take on something, but you actually weren’t ready for that level of responsibility that it took? Or you actually do need more training to handle that task? How do you humble yourself and get that help or that training while still maintaining your confidence and not letting those feelings of inadequacy creep in?
L’Oreal: I mean, I can think about my current role even as director of communications for a national education nonprofit. I started there three years ago, so I had only had two years of nonprofit PR under my belt before then. I was in journalism my entire career, so switching careers … I remember distinctly the phone interview for my current role. The hiring manager had asked me to rate myself on a scale of one to ten and I was like, “Twelve, and this is why.” And I essentially told her that I was the Olivia Pope of nonprofit PR. That is a thing that happened. And I got the job and I was super excited, but then the weeks leading up to my start date, I was having this panic and anxiety that I had basically, like, sold her a lie. Like, that’s not true. Obviously, I was qualified or else she wouldn’t have hired me. But in those first few weeks, I realized that there were still some things that I needed to learn, like how to develop a comprehensive national PR strategy. There were certainly some growing pains, but ultimately I grew into the role. Like, I stepped into my power in that position. And that’s why I advise all of my mentees and colleagues to go after that dream job or that position, even if it seems too far out of reach, because … I think it was Hewlett-Packard that did a study and found that men apply for a job if they have, like, 60-percent of the qualifications.
Kyra: I thought it was 10-percent lower, L’Oreal, honestly.
L’Oreal: Right! It’s like, “Oh, and I don’t have the desired one. We don’t even think about applying.” We essentially reject ourselves before we even put our names in the ring. I’m like, “Don’t do that.” Apply for it. Don’t reject yourself! Like, don’t do it before they have a chance to essentially. That’s self rejection. Because you can learn skills. Like, you can learn software, you can learn more of those hard things. But like your passion for the role, your excitement, your expertise and those sort of things? Like, that is what’s gonna get you in the door. So there’s always room to grow. But what I also do for my own confidence and kind of those rainy days where you’re like, “Well, I am having an off day,” or “I do feel like an imposter.” Like, a brag book. So, I have screenshots. I still have a screenshot of that pep talk from Melissa from way back when she told me to trust my dopeness. I save emails from colleagues and friends and people who respond to my newsletter telling me how much it has helped them and why they like it. I go back to those emails and screenshots and DMs as a little pick me up whenever I am feeling kind of down in the dumps, or am second guessing myself. I use those to remind myself that I am a badass and I am good with people.
Kyra: I will say this. I think some of imposter syndrome, I think, is complicated by race in America and gender issues. And so I think that if you are fully cognizant of where some of this bravado comes from, and some people, where this kind of shrinking back comes from others, it can kind of frame how you think. Like, I’m not going to say that everything I’ve ever attempted to do, I’ve been like, “I am amazing.” You know, there are certain things, like, I know very well I don’t know really how to do it, but I don’t have the arrogance that prevents me from asking for help, to L’Oreal’s point. And I also don’t have the misconception that everybody that supposedly is successful really knows everything either. Some of them have help. Some of them know people. There’s relationships. There’s many ways, I think, to get to success. I think sometimes we think other people know everything and then we try to imitate what they did. One of my biggest imposter syndromes is I got a job writing a column about public transportation, and I’m going to tell y’all. Prior to this, I had mostly been on a bike until I was about 15. And then I finessed my dad into letting me have a car. I wasn’t on any busses, and here I was with a column that was about busses and trains. So what I did was I knew I couldn’t do what my predecessor did. I couldn’t rattle off all these different laws and know all the bus routes in Chicago. You know, Chicago’s huge. So what I did was I turned it into my own thing. It was like an advice column. I did Chicago’s dirtiest trains and dirtiest busses, and people loved it. I got awards for it. But, the thing was, I wasn’t like, “Oh, my God, I don’t know the stats sheets of how many busses can go on one trip.” No, I didn’t know that, but nor did I pretend to. I found a different way to do it.
Nyge: For sure, when Merk and I are talking about adulting with our friends and imposter syndrome comes up, we don’t really know what to say because we’re going through it too. So we awkwardly say some sort of, “It is what it is,” type of statement, but that just doesn’t seem too helpful. And here we are trying to clean it up. So, L’Oreal and Kyra, you both are accomplished women who have found some way or some tools to quiet those feelings of imposter syndrome, or self-doubt, down. Can y’all give our friends some advice on how to remind themselves that they’re dope and, I guess, help us too?
L’Oreal: I mean, for me, the first step was just accepting that it’s along for the ride. So I even feel like the phrase of overcoming imposter syndrome, again, for me, is kind of this misnomer, because what I have found, like I said before, it pops up every time I try to do something new and like outgrow where I am or step outside of my comfort zone. So once I kind of made peace with that and I’m like, “Okay, well, you’re along for the ride, but you’re no longer in the driver’s seat.” It has helped me. Also, picking apart your accomplishments and realizing what it took to get there. Like, it’s not by accident. It’s not, you know, by luck or something like that. You earned it. You interviewed for the position, you were hired and now you’re in the seat. You deserve to be there. Trust your dopeness. I legit, like, put on a Post-it note and put it on the mirror so I can remind myself every morning to do that. Or like a screensaver on your phone, your laptop, wherever you’re going to see it and have it be this reminder to you that you are talented and you’re worthy, you are smart, all those things.
Nyge: Kyra, what about you?
Kyra: You know, I think it’s a little bit different, the perspective that I have, because sometimes — and I could be wrong, so, L’Oreal, don’t get me after this — I think sometimes imposter syndrome is also rooted in or at least connected to perfectionism, and thinking that there’s a certain thing in a certain way that things have to go. I don’t have one. I like to do a great job and I always want to do a great job, but I know that there’s no perfect job. There were some times where I wanted to have a certain person for a cover. I couldn’t get them, so it wasn’t going to be perfect. And I had to let that go and say, “You know what, this is a person from a different angle that’s going to be really great on the cover of this magazine. And it’s going to work out just fine because no one knows what my idea or my ideal was except me.” So I’m not going to beat myself up, because I’m beating myself up and everyone else is like, “Oh, that’s amazing. Great job.” And here I am like, “I’m a failure. I didn’t get the person.” So what I would say to that is: I think perspective is really important and thinking about this accomplishment relative to everything else in the world. Like, this is a horrible time. I don’t think anybody will disagree with me right now in this pandemic. If you’re pursuing perfection, you are toast in my appraisal. So the best thing for you to do is look at what you can control. You can cook. We were talking a bit earlier. You get an Instant Pot and just make a delicious meal and give yourself congrats for that. So I think when you judge yourself by your own standards, don’t compare yourself to other people, which is harder than it sounds. I just think about myself and, like, how can I do better than what I’m doing and why? Because I want to, not because I want anyone to compliment me because I don’t care. You know what I mean? Like, you want respect from people, but I don’t need anyone to give me a compliment. If I know I did a good job, I’m like, “Kyra Kyles, you you bad mamajama.” So just call yourself a bad mamajama. Pat yourself on the back and keep pushing.
Merk: To stay up to date with Kyra, she’s on Twitter & IG @thekylesfiles. Y’all can also check out this super cool organization she runs (ahem) at yrmedia.org. And to get inspired by L’Oreal, sign up for her motivational newsletter on LTinTheCity.com. Or follow her @LTinTheCity to make sure you don’t miss when she drops her book!
Nyge: Alright, everybody, for our next segment, you’re about to hear a short reported piece by our co-worker Nimah on deepfakes and how problematic they can be. After that, we’ll unpack it with her and our other colleague Devin.
Nimah: I mean, you probably know Shawn Corey Carter by a different name. That’s Jay-Z, multi-platinum rapper who also happens to be Beyonce’s husband. He’s got one of the most recognizable voices in all of popular music.
<<TAPE: JAY-Z DOING SONG>>
Nimah: That’s Jay-Z on his track, “99 Problems” from The Black Album, which debuted at number one in 2003. And here’s his voice on a different hit from the 1600s?
<<TAPE: JAY-Z DOING SHAKESPEARE>>
Nimah: But guess what? This voice spitting Shakespeare is not Jay-Z. It’s not even human. It’s an audio deepfake, something UC Berkeley professor Honi Fareed knows how to make because he specializes in spotting them.
Honi: There are recognizable patterns in how we speak: the tone, the intonation, where we put the emphasis. And so there is a way of capturing, mathematically, a person’s speech. And the machine learning the algorithms are simply learning that pattern of speech and then synthesizing.
Nimah: So, basically, you take a bunch of audio, let’s say Jay-Z talking…
Honi: And you train a machine learning algorithm to synthesize speech in their voice so that at the end of the training on hours and hours of audio, you type at the keyboard whatever you want that person to say, and it says it in their voice.
Nimah: Like George Bush doing “In The Club” by 50 Cent.
<<TAPE: GEORGE BUSH DOING “IN THE CLUB”>>
Nimah: And Obama reading Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy.”
<<TAPE: OBAMA DOING “JUICY”>>
Nimah: All of these clips are the work of a developer and YouTuber named Vocal Synthesis who won’t reveal their real name or see why they choose to remain anonymous. But vocal synthesis did tell us this. They make sure to label all of their deepfakes: computer generated using text to speech technology. So it’s not like anyone’s going to think Jay-Z is actually covering Billy Joel.
<<TAPE: JAY-Z DOING BILLY JOEL>>
Nimah: Try telling that to Jay-Z, though. Vocal Synthesis says Jay’s company, Roc Nation, filed a takedown request to withdraw the videos from YouTube for copyright infringement. Roc Nation’s parent company, Live Nation, didn’t respond to our request for comment. YouTube removed the videos for a hot second, but then reposted them, saying the claims were incomplete. Which begs the question:
Patrice: Do I think that there was actual copyright infringement in how they used it? Probably not.
Nimah: Patrice Perkins is an attorney with the Creative Genius law firm. Even though a person’s voice is not covered under U.S. copyright law, courts have ruled that the voice is part of identity, so it can be protected under some circumstances. Both Bette Midler and Tom Waits have successfully sued when companies use someone imitating their distinctive voices in commercials. And even though vocal synthesis is posting their creations for free…
Patrice: That is the slippery slope for the artists, and that’s the danger for the artist who is not aware and maybe not monitoring. And then they look up and all of a sudden they’re in a General Mills commercial that they didn’t actually perform for.
Nimah: So what does all this mean for artists who aren’t at Jay-Z’s level and don’t have the clout or the money to protect themselves? Jessica Brown, who goes by Moneymaka, is not okay with the deepfakery.
Jessica: My voice and my face are my property, whether it’s copyrighted or not. It’s like somebody telling you you don’t own your own body. I thought the point of making music was to be creative? Everybody has their own spin to their own music. But if robots are making music and they can make any specific genre of music, then what are we even doing at this point?
Nimah: Jessica worries about what’s lost when technology replaces music’s raw human energy. She’s also concerned about appropriation, especially given the history of Black art being used without permission, recognition or compensation. Attorney Patrice Perkins brings it back to Jay-Z.
Patrice: That is a voice that, no matter what, we know it’s Jay-Z. It wasn’t just a Black voice. Like, it was a specific Black voice that is representative of a culture of people.
Nimah: Meanwhile, whether you’re into it or not, technology that can make people do or say anything is here. And because it changes so fast, the laws are struggling to keep up. So for now, at least, it’s up to music lovers and makers to try to separate the real from the fake. For Adult ISH, I’m Nimah Gobir.
Merk: Doesn’t that give you Bohemian Rhapsody vibes? (sings) Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Nyge: Yeah, it fasho does. I actually just watched that [Bohemian Rhapsody] movie, so that’s weird that you just said that. But here to help us better understand how deepfakes work is an actual person whose voice you just heard. We have Nima Gobir, YR’s STEAM education producer and project manager. She designs learning tools for young folks who want to create content for YR Media, as well as a lot of our dope episode art.
Merk: Yup! And also joining us is Devin Glover, a Fellow and developer with YR’s Interactive Team, where he supports interns in creating mobile apps, interactive virtual projects and websites like ours, adultishpodcast.com. So glad both of you are here!
Nimah: Thanks for having us you two!
Devin: Thanks for having us!
Merk: So we just heard a story about what deepfakes are, particularly how they can impact the music industry. But other kinds of deepfakes have been around for a while, right? So what’s with the sudden increase in popularity?
Nimah: Yeah, well, the simple answer is that it’s getting harder and harder to recognize that deepfakes are deepfakes because they look so real. And then the technology used to create these fakes is becoming more and more accessible. Also, we’re living in a time where people are super skeptical of the media and becoming really sensitive to misinformation, especially when it involves our political figures. Like if you look on the Web, there is this video of Jordan Peele and Obama doing, like, a deepfake swap. And it looks like Obama’s cussing and saying all these things, but it’s really Jordan Peele. Just a lot of a lot of nonsense out there.
Nyge: That’s exactly what I was going to ask. I was going to say, like, what qualifies as a deepfake? Like, the Tupac hologram or the conversation that he had with Kendrick Lamar on the album. Like, are those deepfakes? Or does that qualify?
Devin: I’d say no. In an example with Kendrick Lamar and Tupac talking, I think that was archives of Tupac or probably unreleased archives of Tupac talking with a modern Kendrick. Whereas maybe if Kendrick was talking to a Tupac that was saying things Tupac would never say, that would in fact be, like, a deepfake.
Nyge: Okay, so I heard that y’all got something planned for Merk and I for this topic. You want to tell us a little bit more about that?
Nimah: So basically, we have three scenarios for you and we just kind of want you to respond and get a feel of how you’re thinking about deepfakes and different situations they could be put in that could actually happen in your everyday life.
Merk: Unless it’s already happening.
Nyge: I know. I’m just, like, really nervous. Like if it’s … “Hey, what’s up? It’s your boy Nyge!” No, no. Y’all gotta go.
Devin: So scenario one: you get an email with the subject line, “Participate in the research study for one hundred and fifty dollars.” Money’s a little short. You know, it be like that sometimes because of the pandemic and the reduced hours at your job. This is a great opportunity to make some money, especially since lately you’ve been stress eating.
Nyge: All the time.
Devin: As you open the email and you read about the study, you realize it’s an opportunity to contribute your voice to a legacy project. All you have to do is read into a mic for an hour and the machine can replicate your voice, including words and phrases that were never actually recorded by you. The email says that these voices and phrases will be made available to those who lost their ability to speak from disease or surgery. Fine print: You will not be able to choose who will utilize your voice. Are you guys going to sign up?
Merk: Uh, I mean…
Nyge: I’d do it.
Merk: But only for one hundred and fifty dollars?
Nyge: But it’s like going for a good cause. People lost their voice due to disease. Like, yo!
Merk: I know, I know. Sure, that’s true. I do like the intent of like, you know, giving back. It’s like in The Little Mermaid, you know, Ariel gets her voice back. Cool. However, what if the person who lost their voice is this tyrant who’s out for bad and no good, you know?
Nyge: That’s not me, though.
Nimah: I was just going to say that, Merk. And what if they’re, like, publicly that way? So people are talking, like, voice bytes of your voice, but there’s different people saying really mean stuff.
Merk: I mean, maybe I would sell out for a higher price. Again, I know it goes toward a, you know, good cause I’m assuming. The intent is great there.
Nyge: I mean, they would probably have a different face than me. So when they going on their stuff, you know, or whatever, I’mma just make a little public announcement. “Yo, I did this little legacy thing. They got my voice. It was for a good cause.” And people are gonna be like, “Oh yeah, makes sense.”
Nimah: What if they made a competing podcast?
Nyge: They don’t got my brain, though. So it’s ugly for them! It’s ugly. Adult ISH Two, they try to do? Nah. It’s not gonna work because they don’t got me and Merk up here.
Nimah: That’s true because Merk’s not going to give her a voice! (laughs)
Nyge: Oh yeah, true. But they not me up here.
Merk: Yeah, no. Not for 150.
Nyge: I’ll give everybody my voice. It’s like giving a kidney, but you don’t even have to lose your kidney. And out of all the voices in the world, they wanted yours.
Nimah: So, Merk is a hard no. And then Nyge is here giving us big confidence and also big generosity. Respect.
Nyge: I’m for the people.
Merk: For 150.
Nimah: So this is actually happening at Northeastern University in Boston. There’s a company called Vocal ID who hasn’t started doing this yet, but it is in the preliminary stages of developing technology to do this. And they do want to have a legacy project where people can donate their voices.
Nyge: That’s tight.
Nimah: So you may get your opportunity soon.
Nyge: Hit me up in the email. My email is … sike! You thought I was going to say my email.
Nimah: That one was contentious. We’re gonna move on to the next scenario. I got this one.
Devin: Alright, alright.
Nimah: Okay. Let’s say your good friend is having a little bit of trouble finding a date despite listening to your amazing “Comedians In Quarantine” episode that you did last season with Joel Kim Booster. No one swiped right for this guy in a while and he realizes that the problem is probably that his pictures on his dating apps are pretty mediocre. Lots of group photos, lots of food photos. It’s his first time trying online dating. So your friend starts to edit himself into cooler places. The crowd at a Tiny Desk concert and the set of Netflix’s “Ozark.” He’s been getting a lot more swipes. Things are going good. And he’s not catfishing because he’s the same person. And it’s just a foot in the dating door, right? Do you think that’s okay?
Merk: I mean, is it all right? I mean, that’s kind of on him, because if he actually does connect with the person, it’s up to him to actually tell the truth, because is he going to start off that relationship with the lie? That’s on him and not me.
Nyge: Your foundation is off.
Merk: Hey, you do you, boo! However, the truth shall come out. And if it doesn’t, then that’s not a genuine relationship.
Nyge: I’mma go with nah.
Nimah: I mean, but people are out here with like Snapchat filters. I mean, we’re on Zoom all the time. You can change your background. I’m in meetings like, “I know you’re not driving a race car while you’re inside the meeting.” (laughs) Do you think that there’s a little bit of similarities? Like, do you think that there’s some wiggle room?
Nyge: I think if it’s blatantly obvious that, like, you know, you are not actually there, then it’s kind of funny. Like when you be seeing people, you know, about to go on the Golden Gate Bridge. Like, I know you aren’t hovering over the Golden Gate Bridge. But cool background, bro.
Nimah: So what I’m hearing is that there’s a world in which it could be kind of cute, like it’s done badly.
Nyge: Yeah. If it’s done badly then it’s, like, charming.
Merk: I just feel bad for this guy because no one liked him in the first place for just being himself.
Nimah: So there actually has been a lot of deepfake catfishing going on and it’s becoming like an increasing phenomenon. It’s being covered by a lot of news outlets. And there is actually a scenario in which people will date deepfake partners to kind of get their parents off their backs.
Nimah: Yeah. If their parents are pressuring them to date, like, you can kind of have this deepfaked person that’s like responding to your text, powered by AI and then also like sending you videos and things like that. So it’s happening. And while it’s not necessarily just editing photos, like, it’s a little bit more serious, we kind of gave you the level one of that situation.
Merk: I mean, hey, if you’re going to go into the effort of creating someone to get off your parent’s back, I can empathize with that.
Nyge: That’s all I’m saying. There’s so many variables.
Devin: Well, for this next scenario, this one’s going to involve having to get someone on your parent’s back anyway. It doesn’t necessarily involve a deepfake, but involves AI technology. So with COVID-19 spiking locally, we’re having to be really careful about how we interact with our elders. So the solution might be robot nurses like ElliQ, which are created for seniors living alone, but could be just as helpful with monitoring our beloved elderly relatives from afar. ElliQ will remind your grandparents to take their meds and get ready to meet with their bridge club. It’s a companion, and will help elderly people continue to feel independent in their own homes while you keep tabs on their health. Since COVID isn’t showing any signs of letting up, will you consider installing a robot nurse at your grandparents’ house to monitor their well-being?
Merk: I mean…
Merk: Wow, that was a big no. If it was like Baymax from Big Hero Six, like a big, marshmallowy, “Hello,” kind of cute thing? I might be okay with that.
Nyge: So I, Robot, right? Remember? Remember Will Smith’s mom…
Devin: Oh no.
Nyge: Will Smith’s mom had that robot. He was all nice and friendly and it was all good. But when they hit that switch he dropped the T, he dropped everything, started tripping on the grandma. She said, “Oh my gosh.” He said, “No you not!” And I’m not finna have my grandpa, you know, getting flashed on by the robot.
Nimah: Okay, okay. It does give kind of Disney Smart House vibes.
Merk: Oh, yes! Such a good movie!
Nimah: And it is recording and learning from your grandparents.
Nyge: That’s where you get to that stuff.
Merk: Then I’d wanna ask…
Nimah: So if Meemaw takes the meds, you know Meemaw takes the meds, because Meemaw was like, “Yeah, sure will.”
Merk: Here’s the thing. I would want to ask Meemaw how she feels about this, because, like, I’m thinking right now in real life about my grandpa. He lives by himself and he had a stroke on his own. And it was up to him the next day to figure out like, “Oh, I think I had a stroke.” So he drove himself to the clinic and they’re like, “Yeah, you need to go to the E.R.” So, like, in that scenario, yeah, I would have liked for an AI to be there, because my grandpa wasn’t sure if he had a stroke and he did.
Nyge: I don’t know. I’d be open to it.
Merk: I mean, is that actually happening in real life though?
Nimah: Absolutely. There’s huge leaps being taken with AI and elderly care and ElliQ is actually something that you can purchase. And there’s also been a surge in these kinds of companion, robot creatures for elderly people and not elderly people. Like, if you go and watch “Master of None,” there is Paro, the robot seal.
Merk: Oh, yes!
Nimah: Yeah. And it, like, kind of glows and makes sounds and it’s meant to be a companion. So not necessarily to care for an elderly person, but to be there for an elderly person and make them feel like they’re nurturing something without the risk of it being a creature that they might not be able to take care of.
Nyge: So now that we’ve run through these different scenarios, do you both, as the experts, think that we should be worried or not? It’s like one of those things that’s just a part of our every day and we just got to get used to it and roll with it?
Devin: So my answer is, you know, it’s a worrying time. Like Nimah said, you know, everyone’s very skeptical of what’s being put out these days, especially in the news. You know, Donald Trump’s talking about sending DHS to everybody’s cities. And at first, everybody was looking at that like, “Oh, he’s not going to do that.” And, you know, guess what? He does it. So now we could be in the situation where, you know, someone deepfakes him and he said something crazy again. But we could actually believe it because he actually sent DHS to, like, people’s cities. He did the impossible already. And now people just have the ability to make the impossible happen. And so it just keeps on going and going.
Nimah: Personally, I’m not so scared of the political implications and I bet I’m going to regret saying this, but as I said before, I’m so surprised every day that I’m somehow getting a little used to it. What I find kind of interesting is that there are also so many cool, creative things happening with deepfakes. We looked at some of the scarier scenarios, but there are also these two artists called Dr. Fakeenstein and there’s Mr. Giraffe, and they’ll do, like, hilarious nonsense. One person turns Nick Offerman from Parks and Rec into every member of the full House, and did the Full House opening with just his face appearing on all of these…
Merk: I saw that one.
Nyge: What about that Issa Rae? What was that, Luther?
Nimah: Issa Vandross.
Nyge: Yeah, that had me dead! (laughs)
Nimah: And I think there’s serious implications to all of that. But I also think it’s really … It’s funny. But then on the other hand, as creators, like we’re all creators and artists of color on the mic right now. And I do think that we’ll need to be asking questions of who is able to borrow whose body and whose voice. Black voices, bodies and intellectual property is stolen every single day and deepfakes are a way that can happen super seamlessly. So I’m a little worried about that, but also ready to giggle.
Merk: And with that, thanks, Nima and Devin, for joining us over Zoom. Hopefully we weren’t talking to the fakes of yourselves, but who knows? It was fun talking with you all regardless.
Nimah: Thanks for having us!
Devin: Thank you for inviting us!
Merk: Make sure you check out Nimah’s art at nimahgobir.com and Devin on Instagram @shagia.me.
Nyge: So today’s top takeaways are: One, remind yourself that you’re a (sings) bad mamajama (normally) and especially if you are a humble bad mamajama.
Merk: And two, technology, like deepfakes, can be misleading or have you questioning the legitimacy of the content you’re consuming. But those technologies aren’t inherently bad — it’s really how they’re used or manipulated by people that matters.
Nyge: Yup! And we hope that all of you out there are doing good and being good. Thanks for listening to Adult ISH, produced by YR Media, a national network of young artists and journalists creating content for this generation.
Merk: Thank yous go out to our producer Georgia Wright, Senior Producer Davey Kim, Executive Producer Rebecca Martin, engineer Galnadgee Joe-Johnson, the young people at YR who made the art and music for this episode, and of course, all y’all in the Adult ISH fam for listening.
Nyge: We’re @YRadultISH on all the socials where you can see our actual, real pictures of us, not deepfakes. I’m @nygelt on Twitter.
Merk: And I’m @ultraraduberfad on IG. I don’t know why we just did that with our voices … To show we all that we’re real! (laughs) Our website for the show is adultishpodcast.com.
Nyge: We’re also proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX, an independent listener-supported collective of some of the realest shows in all of podcasting. Find them at radiotopia.fm.
Merk: That’s it for today! Thanks for coming to our TED Talk.
Nyge: Be real everybody. You see what I did there? Later!
NOTE: Our segment on deepfakes builds on YR Media’s work that is generously supported in part by the National Science Foundation. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed are those of the makers of Erase Your Face and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.