The civil unrest in Sudan has taken an alarming twist online. A mysterious account on TikTok recently uploaded “leaked recordings” of Omar al-Bashir, the former leader of Sudan, garnering hundreds of thousands of views. But there’s a twist: this voice is not Bashir’s.
Known as “The Voice of Sudan” on TikTok, per a BBC report, this channel has perplexed many with its authentic-sounding recordings of Bashir. By blending a mix of old press conference clips with these “leaked recordings,” the authenticity of the content has been further blurred. The recordings, often portraying clandestine meetings or phone calls, carry that typical grainy sound of poor connections, adding to the illusion of legitimacy.
BBC Monitoring’s Sudan experts have expressed skepticism over the authenticity of these clips. According to them, Bashir’s ailing health makes it doubtful that he could have spoken so clearly.
What has AI got to do with Sudan's civil war?
A campaign using artificial intelligence to impersonate Omar al-Bashir, the former leader of Sudan, has received hundreds of thousands of views on TikTok, adding online confusion to the war torn country. https://t.co/FWsG9Eh2Mv
— BBC News Africa (@BBCAfrica) October 5, 2023
Pinpointing the deception
The breakthrough came when a vigilant user recognized one of the recordings. The words spoken by Bashir were a perfect match for a broadcast from Al Insirafi, a prominent Sudanese political commentator based in the US. Although their voices are distinct, an overlay of the two recordings revealed them to be eerily synchronized. This discovery suggests using advanced voice conversion software to transform one voice into another.
Further analysis revealed a recurring pattern: multiple Bashir recordings could be traced back to this commentator. Yet, there’s no direct evidence pointing to the blogger’s involvement.
Deciphering the motive
The motive behind these impersonations remains speculative. Are these uploads an attempt to deceive the masses into thinking Bashir is resurfacing in the war? Or is there an agenda to legitimize a particular political stance using Bashir’s voice? Regardless, the consistent narrative of these recordings is the criticism of the Sudanese army’s head, Gen. Burhan.
According to the BBC, when approached, the channel denied any intent to deceive and stated its desire to voice the realities in Sudan.
A broader implication: Synthetic media’s evolution
This incident underscores the growing concerns about the misuse of advanced AI in media. “The democratization of access to sophisticated audio and video manipulation technology is deeply concerning,” warns Hany Farid, an expert in digital forensics at the University of California, Berkeley. According to experts, the ease with which ordinary individuals can now produce fabricated content can significantly impact the dissemination of information.
As Mohamed Suliman, a researcher at Northeastern University’s Civic AI Lab, emphasizes, there’s a real danger that such recordings could cast doubt on genuine ones, leading to widespread mistrust.
Guarding against audio-disinformation
Determining the legitimacy of such recordings can be challenging, especially in times of civil discord. While the technology to generate fake voices has advanced significantly, the tools to detect such fabrications are still nascent.
On learning about the misleading content, TikTok took action quickly, removing the account for violating its policy against posting potentially harmful false content.
Parallel developments in voice technology
It’s not just the realm of politics where AI voice technology is making waves. In an unrelated development, Spotify has launched an AI-driven Voice Translation tool for its podcasts. This tool, touted as groundbreaking, can translate podcast content into various languages, all while retaining the original podcaster’s voice. Such innovations, while offering immense potential for global content dissemination, also raise questions about the ethical implications of voice manipulation.
The impersonation of Omar al-Bashir on TikTok is a stark reminder of the challenges of the digital age. As technology advances at an unprecedented rate, the onus is on platforms, creators, and consumers alike to navigate this space with caution, awareness, and integrity.