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#GeniusUpDailyNews!: Faking It and Making It: Behind the Rise of Synthetic Influencers

A wave of synthetic media–and synthetic social media-based characters–is here.

In August 2008, Kim Kardashian cut her foot on a shard of glass and a then-newish celebrity gossip website,, sent out alerts to millions of people. As it happened, I was sitting with several executives, who collectively eye-rolled and argued that the famous-for-being-famous set have a short shelf life. 

Say what you will about Kim Kardashian–at least she’s a human. The next generation of the famous-for-being-famous are being engineered from scratch. They’re synthetic stars–algorithmically generated characters who have millions of Instagram followers, show up in glossy magazines, and have songs on Spotify. Like Lil Miquela, who’s sort of the synthetic Beyoncé, thanks to her 1.6 million Instagram followers. She models for the likes of Prada and Calvin Klein, her first single came out last year, and she has sponsorship deals with companies like Samsung. Among her pals: Bermuda, a rule-breaking bad girl who models and touts brands, and Blawko, an L.A.-based Gen-Zer who likes fast cars and Absolut vodka, and who is never seen without his trademark scarf covering his nose and mouth.


Synthetic stars aren’t entirely new. Virtual Japanese pop star Hatsune Miku debuted in 2007–though actual people wrote her songs–and still does stadium tours around the world. (In English, her name translates roughly to “first sound of the future.”) But they’re becoming a big business. Brud, the company behind Lil Miquela, is valued at $125 million. Companies like Superplastic, Toonstar, and Shadows are developing virtual characters, and this year the incubator and investor Betaworks launched Synthetic Camp, an accelerator program designed to nurture and invest in such companies. 

Synthetic stars are an antidote to egotistical and misbehaving celebs. They’re ideal employees: They don’t show up late. They don’t follow trendy diets requiring costly, hard-to-find foods. They never get tired. They don’t get crazy on alcohol or drugs. They’re never off-message, and their mug shots don’t go viral on the internet. (Though, this summer, Bermuda posted her own mug shot on Instagram, to “get ahead” of the press.)

There are many other implications: Rather than having Emily Blunt spend hours voicing a character in an animated film, one could license her voice, and then program a system to mimic it. Synthetically voiced ads could be modified with regional accents. A public service announcement about malaria was produced this year by AI video synthesis company Synthesia and ad agency R/GA; in it, David Beckham discusses how to fight malaria in nine languages, thanks to synthetic voice technology. And imagine different synthetic characters appearing in hundreds of ads, each targeting narrow demographic bases: trendsetting moms in Southern California, stay-at-home dads in Chicago, aspirational Gen-Zers from Atlanta who are entering college. 

There are risks, of course. Like all cutting-edge tech, from gene editing to AI-enabled hiring, the law hasn’t kept pace with innovation. I know of no law or regulation anywhere that governs synthetic content, although some observers have recommended adapting current laws that cover libel, defamation, identity fraud, and impersonating a government official.

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Meanwhile, last spring criminals used synthetic voice technology to impersonate a CEO and trick a manager into transferring $243,000 into their bank account. Synthetic versions of Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi have repeatedly gone viral. And what happens when humanlike avatars, trained on our personal data, start selling us things? What if someone generates a synth of one of your employees–or of you? 

Some companies are working on such concerns. Synthesia co-founder Matthias Niessner created a system to detect, say, fake Pelosi videos called FaceForensics++. His team is developing other tools to identify synthetic content. All of which is great–but he had better work fast. If scores of ersatz Kim Kardashians are created, TMZ will never be able to keep up. 


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#GeniusUpDailyNews!: Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg meets with Trump during Washington visit

@FACEBOOKFacebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met with President Donald Trump while he was in the nation’s capital.

The face-to-face meeting came as Zuckerberg sat down with some of his harshest critics during his visit to Washington. Trump has been among those critics, having repeatedly criticized Facebook as “anti-Trump” and for perceived anti-conservative bias. The President has tweeted on multiple occasions in support of conservative activists who have either been kicked off of Facebook or had run-ins with the company. Axios first reported the Zuckerberg-Trump meeting. 

Trump confirmed the meeting in a tweetThursday evening.

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“Nice meeting with Mark Zuckerberg of @Facebook in the Oval Office today,” the President said.

The meeting was the most important meeting of Zuckerberg’s rare visit to the nation’s capital this week to meet with some of his biggest skeptics, seeking to bridge a divide between the social media giant and policymakers who have grown increasingly suspicious of its dominance.

Zuckerberg will meet members of the House Judiciary Committee on Friday, according to a person familiar with the matter, following a slew of meetings on Thursday with some of his most prominent critics in Congress.

Zuckerberg is expected to meet with committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, a New York Democrat, as well as Rhode Island Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, who leads the committee’s antitrust panel. The Washington Post was first to report on the meeting. 

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Cicilline is several months into a sweeping antitrust probe of tech giants including Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. Last week, Cicilline sent letters to all four companies seeking detailed records on their business practices, acquisitions and prior dealings with governments around the world.

It was the billionaire entrepreneur’s first reported trip to Washington since an appearance before Congress in April 2018, when Zuckerberg testified on Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal.

Zuckerberg met Thursday afternoon with Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, one of Facebook’s most vocal critics, to discuss data privacy and allegations of anti-conservative bias.

Calling it a “frank discussion,” Hawley said he pressed Zuckerberg to sell off WhatsApp and Instagram.

“Safe to say he was not receptive to those suggestions,” Hawley said. He added that Zuckerberg conceded that the company had “made a mistake” in a fact-checking controversy surrounding a pair of videos published by the anti-abortion group Live Action.

Zuckerberg left the meeting wordlessly, flanked by advisers including Facebook’s US public policy chief, Kevin Martin. 

Over dinner Wednesday night, Zuckerberg and a number of US senators discussed Facebook’s role in securing the country’s elections, as well as consumer privacy and competition issues in the social media marketplace.

“I was glad for the opportunity to discuss my concerns directly with Mr. Zuckerberg,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut. “I focused on the challenges of privacy safeguards and I welcome the strong, constructive interest shown by Mr. Zuckerberg.