By Charlie Bain

It is often when looking deep into the future that the most disturbing scenarios appear. For me that happened when I was asked to contribute to a report on preparing the rising generation in family businesses for succession, and to consider the challenges they will have to grapple with in the digital and social media landscape in 10 or 20 years’ time.

I remember being asked a similar question in 2008, when Twitter was in its infancy and I warned clients that with every tweet, the narrative they were creating could be resurfaced in the future, taken out of context and used against them. But this time around the threat lies not in words but in video. Synthetic media could be used as a powerful communications weapon in the future, enabling new attack vectors for bad actors and causing grief and anxiety for businesses navigating a volatile digital world.

Deepfakes and their potential to cause harm

The abuse of synthetic media most commonly manifests in the form of deepfakes: audio, images and videos that appear to depict real people, speech and actions but are in fact synthetic creations using clever, digital artificial intelligence. Deepfakes are on the rise, with author Nina Schick revealing that some experts she interviewed for her book on the subject believe that “in five to seven years’ time, 90 percent of video content online is going to be synthetic.”

In the wrong hands, synthetic media has the potential to cause considerable damage to companies and individuals. Imagine this scenario: a video of a company CEO is leaked online, in which they appear to be talking to investors about anxieties surrounding a product and its viability. As traditional media scramble to verify the video’s authenticity, the share price of the company that produces the product in question crashes. The video is eventually identified as a deepfake, but a lingering negative perception of the product remains. That is the nature of disinformation: even when exposed as false, it still disorientates.

Synthetic media’s advantages and current limitations

It’s easy to be alarmist when writing about the potential abuse of synthetic media, but it’s worth pointing out that artificial intelligence in the digital sphere has clear benefits in certain industries such as healthcare, education, film production, criminal forensics and artistic expression. Genealogy website MyHeritage features a Deep Nostalgia tool which uses deepfake tech to enable users to bring old photos to life. It has reanimated more than 65 million photos of people to date, offering a heartwarming and fascinating experience for many users.

Convincing deepfake videos still currently take a very long time to create from scratch, which has limited their capacity to proliferate in large numbers and cause widespread damage. Building the computer model to create the infamous and eerily realistic deepfake of Tom Cruise that hit headlines earlier this year took its Belgian creator over two months, with dozens more hours spent ironing out the glitches frame by frame using digital graphics software. Deepfakes are not threatening our financial or political landscape to any meaningful degree today, and to date their abuse has centred largely on areas like non-consensual deepfake pornography and entertainment. But the writing is on the wall, and as technology develops in this area, so will the ease and speed with which convincing deepfakes can be created. Last year Forbes Magazine reported that in the months and years ahead, deepfakes threaten to grow from an internet oddity to a widely destructive political and social force.

Why should we be concerned about deepfakes?

In a 2020 report, the Brookings Institution ran through some of the political and social risks presented by the advent of deepfakes: distorting democratic discourse; manipulating elections; eroding trust in institutions; weakening journalism; exacerbating social divisions; undermining public safety; and inflicting hard-to-repair damage on the reputation of prominent individuals, including elected officials and candidates for office.

Another reason to be concerned is the white-knuckle speed at which the AI software used to create deepfakes is being developed – and their increasing proliferation as a result. From 2019 to 2020, the number of deepfake videos grew from 14,678 to 100 million. According to Forbes, at the end of 2020 views were up 2,000% in a year. Deepfakes have invaded mainstream internet platforms, amassing over 6 billion views between them. While at present they require a Hollywood studio or at least a powerful computer to create, this looks set to change: an app now exists that enables you to map your face on to that of a celebrity, and another that allows you to control the facial movements of another person like a puppeteer. It won’t be long before a teenager in his or her bedroom can create a very realistic deepfake in a matter of minutes.

How can family businesses protect themselves?

What does this mean to you if you are in charge of a family business? In the special report Family Business and Responsible Wealth Ownership: Preparing the Next Generation, my distinguished co-authors explore the many challenges the rising generation will have to grapple with, including increased government intervention, business disruption, international conflict and climate change. The publication couldn’t be more timely, as many  families have experienced a period of reflection during the pandemic, and are thinking increasingly about preparing the rising generation for the future. The report aims to help family members navigate an uncertain world, addressing themes including finding a purpose, developing resilience, the benefits of mentoring, preparing women for wealth understanding asset protection structures, and encouraging entrepreneurship.

Preparedness is critical: being aware of and alert to what’s coming down the line will help you avoid pitfalls, and it is easier and less harmful to avoid damage than to repair it. There are various ways that families can safeguard their digital narrative – being aware of their digital footprint, understanding what is public on the internet and what is private, preparedness for a social media crisis, and meticulous digital threat monitoring. Digitalis’s services and training cover all of these areas, and we have helped all generations of family offices navigate these complexities.

Various solutions are being explored and developed to combat the dangers of deepfakes, including reverse video search, blockchain-based verification systems, kitemarks, and legal and regulatory solutions. But at the moment, as with cyber security ten years ago, the bad actors utilising synthetic video are advancing quicker than those trying to spot and combat them. For the next generation of family wealth owners, being aware of the information battleground and its destructive nature, using experts to help them through it, and adopting tools as they become available, will be the best ways to protect themselves.

Family Business and Responsible Wealth Ownership: Preparing the Next Generation, Edited by Iraj Ispahani and published by Globe Law and Business is a 179-page special report that can be ordered online here.