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PolitiFact FL: How a deepfake video of Ron DeSantis dropping out went viral

Man in suit talks in front of a podium
AP via Miami Herald

WLRN has partnered with PolitiFact to fact-check Florida politicians. The Pulitzer Prize-winning team seeks to present the true facts, unaffected by agenda or biases.

We’ve seen ads that support Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for president employ artificial intelligence to malign DeSantis’ opponents and boost DeSantis. But a recent anti-DeSantis video used AI to do the opposite.

"BREAKING NEWS: Governor Ron DeSantis drops out of the 2024 Republican presidential primary," proclaimed a Sept. 1 post on X, formerly Twitter, that showed a two-minute video in which DeSantis sat at a desk and appeared to announce he was terminating his campaign.

In the clip, DeSantis appeared to be saying, "After the last week’s events, including my poor performance at the debate as well as President Trump rejoining X, I’ve realized I need to drop out of this race immediately."

READ MORE: DeSantis unveils new economic policy that targets China, taxes and regulations

The X account that posted the clip goes by "Steven Savage," a self-described digital creator. A day later, the account told its followers the video was "obviously a #DeepFake meme, and was created for entertainment purposes only. Laugh, retweet, and like! 👍"

DeSantis spokesperson Bryan Griffin also confirmed to PolitiFact that the video is fake.

Experts say there were some telltale signs that would have tipped people off to the video’s inauthenticity. But in an era in which deepfakes are gaining prominence in politics, it’s worth identifying those signs and explaining how such a video entered the political discussion.

Meme accounts created the deepfake
Deepfakes are machine-generated audio or video that alter faces, bodies or voices to make people appear to do or say things they never did or said.

It appears that the DeSantis deepfake video was originally posted Sept. 1 by the X account "C3PMeme" — a self-described "meme making droid" — with the caption, "What Ron DeSantis should say but won't ... #deepfake."

It tagged two accounts, Ramble_Rants and LEAHmemes, as collaborators. C3PMeme and Ramble_Rants have blue check marks. The marks previously proved that account owners were who they said they were. But today they are available only to X Premium subscribers who pay $8 per month, entitling them to display the check mark (or not) and receive other benefits such as higher post visibility and the ability to post longer videos and edit posts after publication. X says it reviews subscriber applicants to ensure they don’t have signs of inauthenticity, but critics have said the system doesn’t do enough to discourage imposter accounts.

C3PMeme and Ramble_Rants appear to be part of a network of accounts supported by the "Dilley Meme Team," owned by Counter Productions Digital Media, which lists "deepfakes & shallowfakes" among its services. Its site says, "From head swaps and CGI shallowfakes to elaborate Al infused deepfakes, no one will ever know the difference but us!"

CGI stands for computer-generated imagery. Shallowfakes are doctored videos made with simple video editing software; deepfakes, by contrast, require artificial intelligence technology.

The other tagged collaborator, LEAHmemes, is a private account with no followers. It seems to be a mistag of "itsreallyleah," another self-described meme account supported by the same digital media company. C3PMeme has tagged itsreallyleah in a past collaboration.

The three accounts posted the video around the same time Sept. 1 and collectively gained over 100,000 views. Only C3PMeme’s post labeled it as a deepfake.

A YouTube channel with the same name, C3PMeme, also posted the video on the same day. Its caption said it was "a deepfake of what Ron DeSantis might say if he dropped out of the race (which he should)."

We also looked for the original source video, and a reverse-image search of the video’s frames showed that it matched an Aug. 15 virtual press conference DeSantis held with local media in New England.

During the briefing, DeSantis did not say anything about exiting the presidential race — a significant development that would have generated news headlines ahead of the 2024 elections. But there were no such credible news reports.

Signs of AI
University of California, Berkeley professor Hany Farid and University at Buffalo professor Siwei Lyu, who both teach computer science courses, told PolitiFact they concluded that the video is a deepfake. Farid said it combined an AI-generated voice and a stock video of DeSantis, with a mouth and lower jaw generated to match the new audio track. Lyu said the audio was likely created with a text-to-speech synthesis method.

Farid detected that the audio to video sync was misaligned in multiple places. Lyu pointed out that the voice lacks breathing sounds and that the teeth are "often blurry and inconsistent across frames."

Farid and Lyu said creating this type of deepfake is "fairly easy." The tools needed to make such a video are available online, some low-cost or free.

"It is fairly clear that this video was not explicitly intended to be deceptive: the YouTube channel clearly labels it as a fake. However, once this video is taken from YouTube (where it is clearly labeled) and starts making the rounds on Twitter/TikTok, etc. this disclosure may be lost," Farid said in an email. "I think we should be concerned about the rapid development of deepfake technology because it is going to make it more difficult for voters to reason about what candidates did and did not say."

As Farid predicted, the video spread on social media platforms, including Twitter and TikTok, without any label identifying its original context as a deepfake. These misrepresented videos gained thousands of views.

Our ruling
A video of DeSantis supposedly showed him announcing that he is dropping out of the presidential race. But it was originally posted by a meme account that labeled it as a "deepfake."

The source video is from an Aug. 15 press briefing, in which DeSantis doesn’t mention dropping out of the race. We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

Loreben Tuquero is a reporter covering misinformation for PolitiFact.