Taylor Swift deepfakes could be just the tip of an AI-generated iceberg

Last week, fake pornographic images of singer Taylor Swift started spreading across X (formerly known as Twitter). Swift fans quickly swarmed the platform, calling out the images as fakes generated by AI software, and demanding that X remove them and block the accounts sharing them. According to a number of reports, the platform removed some of the images and the accounts that posted them, but not before certain photos had been viewed millions of times, and images continued to circulate across the service even after the bans were implemented. X then blocked the term “Taylor Swift” from its search engine, so that trying to search for the singer produced an error telling users that “something went wrong.” Despite this attempt to block people from seeing the content, reporters for The Verge found that it was relatively easy to get around the search block and find the fake images anyway.

Some observers noted that X’s inability to stop the proliferation of Swift porn was likely caused in part by Elon Musk’s dismantling of the company’s trust and safety team, most of whom were fired after he acquired Twitter in 2022. In the wake of the Taylor Swift controversy, Joe Benarroch, head of business operations at X, told Bloomberg that the company is planning a new “trust and safety center of excellence” in Texas to help enforce its content moderation rules, and that X intends to hire a hundred full-time moderators. Bloomberg also noted that the announcement came just days before executives from X and the other major social platforms and services are set to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee for a hearing on child safety online.

On Monday, X restored the ability to search for Taylor Swift, but said in a statement that it would “continue to be vigilant” in removing similar AI-generated nonconsensual images. (According to a report from The Verge, some of the original Swift images were seen forty-five million times before they were removed.) The White House even weighed in on the controversy: Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, told ABC News that the Biden administration was “alarmed by the reports,” and that while social media companies are entitled to make their own content decisions, the White House believes it has a role in preventing “the spread of misinformation, and non-consensual, intimate imagery of real people.”

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

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The grift, the prince, the twist, and the truth (maybe)

If you read my daily email newsletter, When The Going Gets Weird (and if not, what is wrong with you?!) then you might recall a bizarre tale from Graydon Carter’s Air Mail entitled “The Grift, the Prince, and the Twist.” Written by Hannah Ghorashi and editor George Pendle, it told the story of Amar Singh, a descendant of a well-to-do Indian family (in other words, a “prince,” depending on your definition of that term) who said he was conned by a woman named Liza-Johanna Holgersson, who claimed to be from a rich Swedish family and took advantage of him. Pretty straightforward so far. But as the story continues, it gets more and more bizarre, until it’s almost impossible to tell what the real story is. And now there is an update, via an email to me — read on.

After giving Air Mail reams of documents and evidence of Holgersson’s scams, including her affairs with other men, some of whom also gave interviews to Air Mail, the only thing missing was a comment from Holgersson herself. Finally, the writer was able to get hold of Holgersson — who turned the tables on Singh, saying he wasn’t who he seemed, and that he had been threatening her, playing an audio tape of him making threats and calling her horrible names. Sure enough, there seemed to be some holes in Singh’s background as a philanthropist who had donated millions of dollars worth of paintings and art to support LGBTQ rights. One art dealer called him an outright fraud.

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How Bob Kane stole all the credit for inventing Batman

From Daniel Rennie for Bold Entrance: “The biggest villain in Gotham isn’t the Joker, but Batman’s creator himself, Bob Kane. In the years following Batman’s first appearance in May 1939, Kane became almost as famous as the Caped Crusader himself. But Kane wasn’t responsible for what makes the crime-fighter so memorable: his costume, his arsenal of cool gadgets, or his secret identity. He didn’t even create Gotham City. All these creations belong to Bill Finger, whose identity remained as secret as Bruce Wayne. Finger made Batman what he is, and had a hand in the creation of Robin, and villains like The Joker, Penguin, and Two-Face. Nonetheless, Kane got all the credit – and the money.” 

The inventor of the Pringle’s can was so proud of it he was buried in one

The Man Who Invented The Pringles Can Was Buried Inside A Pringles Can ...

From Scott Horsely at NPR: “If it weren’t for Frederic Baur, Pringle might still be just a street name in suburban Cincinnati. Back in the 1960s, Cincinnati-based Procter and Gamble, where Baur worked, developed a potato chip made from dehydrated flour and shaped like a saddle. They didn’t look like any other potato chip, and Baur’s can was just as novel. Baur won a patent on the tubular container in 1970, and packaging experts say the distinctive can was a big reason for the national and international success of the chips. Baur died in 2008 at 89, and at his request, some of his ashes were buried in a Pringle’s can.”

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

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His staff stole $34 million from him and he didn’t notice

From Maxine Bernstein for Oregon Live: “Husband-and-wife chauffeurs are accused of stealing $34 million from wealthy publisher Win McCormack over seven years. Sergey Lebedenko and his wife, Galina provided rides to McCormack through their limousine service and then made unauthorized charges of up to $34 million to his American Express card.The couple used the money to buy lavish vacation homes and a $1.5 million executive jet. While executing search warrants at the couple’s homes, federal agents seized more than $100,000 in cash and 150 ounces of gold bullion worth about $300,000. It is the largest alleged heist against a single person in the history of Oregon.”

The US government created a battle plan in case of a zombie invasion

Zombies Wallpapers HD - Wallpaper Cave

From Thaddeus Morgan for History: “The United States may have one of the largest armies on earth, but even the Pentagon has taken no chances at being caught off-guard by an unusual foe. In fact, in 2011, the U.S. Department of Defense released a strategy to combat a potential zombie apocalypse. While the potential opponents might be fictional, the military took it seriously. In fact, the first line of the Counter-Zombie Dominance Plan, or “CONPLAN 8888-11,” states, “This plan was not actually designed as a joke.” The origins of the plan can be traced to training exercises held in 2009 and 2010, during which young officers realized the potential upsides to planning for a hypothetical zombie attack.”

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

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Jimmy Sabatino may be the loneliest prisoner in the US

From Alan Prendergast for WestWord: “Located a hundred miles southwest of Denver, just outside the high-desert town of Florence, ADX houses more than 300 terrorists, gang leaders, drug lords and other high-risk prisoners. Its guest list includes Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols and shoe bomber Richard Reid, and Unabomber Ted Kaczynski was housed there for decades until he committed suicide. And then are the two guys in The Suites, the most solitary of men. They are each entombed behind double doors in a seven-by-twelve-foot cell; the men are under scrutiny 24 hours a day, by cameras and listening devices in the cells. FBI agents read their mail and listen in on their phone calls.”

Why did this New England college campus see a wave of student suicides?

From Jordan Kisner for the NYT: “The first death happened before the academic year began. In July 2021, an undergraduate student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute was reported dead. The administration sent a notice out over email, with the familiar, thoroughly vetted phrasing and appended resources. The week before the academic year began, a second student died. A rising senior in the computer-science department who loved horticulture took his own life. This brought an intimation of disaster. One student suicide is a tragedy; two might be the beginning of a cluster. Some faculty members began to feel a tinge of dread when they stepped onto campus. A third student died before September was up.”

Note: This is a version of my personal newsletter, which I send out via Ghost, the open-source publishing platform. You can see other issues and sign up here.

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Stewart Butterfield and Slack, his second accidental success story

I’ve been going through some archives of mine, and came across a story I wrote in February of 2014, almost exactly 10 years ago, when I was working for Gigaom in San Francisco. I interviewed a young Canadian guy named Stewart Butterfield about a new thing he had just launched called Slack — a kind of all-in-one chat and workflow discussion app. I freely admit that I was not sold on this app at first, despite Marc Andreessen’s excitement about its growth rate, and I blame that on my lack of interest in corporate productivity apps in general, which I’m sure are really important but in most cases are as boring as watching paint dry.

What really interested me about Stewart and Slack was that the development of Slack happened while Butterfield and his team were trying to launch an online game called Glitch — according to Stewart, they came up with Slack as a way of collaborating with each other while working on the game, because every other form of collaboration (email, MSN Messenger, etc.) didn’t have the features they were looking for. But the really interesting part of the story was that this was the second time Stewart had invented something successful seemingly by accident, while doing something completely unrelated.

The first time was a little app called Flickr, which more or less invented the online photo-sharing market. Flickr grew out of another attempt at an online game that Stewart and his partners (including Flickr co-founder and Butterfield’s wife at the time, Caterina Fake) were working on. This one was called Game Neverending, and it was a very cool exploratory open-world type of animated game — I played it a few times and quite liked it, but it never took off. As part of the game, you could upload an avatar of yourself, a picture or image of some kind, and that feature turned out to be really popular, so Stewart and the Flickr team wisely decided to focus on expanding that, and Flickr was born.

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