By: francesca scott
February 2 2024
Taylor Swift poses on the red carpet for the 2022 MTV Europe Music Awards (EMAs) at the PSD Bank Dome in Duesseldorf, Germany, November 13, 2022. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay/File Photo/File Photo
“Taylor Swift” was blocked from searches on X (formerly Twitter) on Monday, January 29, with results for the musician's name returning only an error message until the following day. This was X’s response to the AI deepfake images of the artist circulating on the platform, depicting her in various sex acts.
Swift is covered in red and white body paint in the images – colors of the Kansas City Chiefs, the American football team for which her current partner Travis Kelce plays. The images went viral shortly after Swift was “outed” as queer by a New York Times opinion piece, followed by a deepfake scam of her promoting Le Creuset cookware to scrape data from unsuspecting Swift fans and cookery enthusiasts alike, and a Fox News segment branding Swift a CIA psyop.
January was certainly the month of misinformation for Swift.
From her “Eras” tour being the highest-grossing of all time and helping to boost the U.S. economy by billions of dollars, Swift has had an unbelievably successful 2023. Routinely targeted on social media platforms, Rolling Stone reported her recent high-profile relationship with Kelce and a potential performance spot at this year's Super Bowl has “already prompted the MAGA right’s culture-war pugilists into a conspiracy-fueled froth about how this NFL season has been rigged to boost Biden.” Swift endorsed President Joe Biden in 2020, and as the U.S. goes to elections later this year with a likely repeat of a Biden vs. Trump face-off, conservative personalities and right-wing accounts online are alleging the artist will once again endorse the Democrat candidate.
A post claiming the Super Bowl is rigged. (Source: X)
A Google reverse image search traces the AI images to a site called “Celeb Jihad," which describes itself as a celebrity gossip site but posts porn of celebrities, some fake, some stolen. According to Daily Beast, Swift threatened legal action against Celeb Jihad in 2011 — then known as Celebrity Jihad — after the site published a fake nude photo of the pop star under the headline “Taylor Swift Topless Private Pic Leaked?”
Logically Facts’ OSINT expert Ishaana Aiyanna pointed out a subtle but essential detail about the AI deepfake images on X – on first look, the extremely graphic, pornographic images are shocking. But they feature no human genitals, omitting details like nipples on both Swift and other figures, thus subverting the algorithm on platforms like X and evading their Adult Nudity and Sexual Behavior policy. This is the success of AI-generated porn, she explains: "Malicious actors on the internet no longer have to hack people's devices. They can simply AI generate and circulate images that violate them."
The online response to the pictures was scrambled. When they began to spread, eagle-eyed “Swifties,” the term used for the singer's massive fan base, began to flood X’s feed with unrelated posts to prevent the deep fakes from going viral. But some posts gained as many as 47 million views, prompting X to block searches of her name, the BBC reported. Musk fired much of the platform's content monitoring teams in 2022 but appears to be attempting to rectify the situation as “the company has been called out for failing to moderate posts promoting antisemitism, Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian hate, as well as AI-generated porn of Taylor Swift that made headlines.”
Professor Kim Barker, founder of the EU’s Online Violence Against Women Observatory, explains that content moderation and takedown mechanisms like X’s are reactionary measures that don’t prevent harm or protect women: “There is considerable scope for social media platforms to be more proactive with gender-aware terms, conditions, and use policies, and for enforcement action and oversight to be more proactive.” The ugly reality is that, even if Swift takes legal action, she has little legal recourse since only select states within the U.S. have laws prohibiting the sharing of deep fake pornography.
Before the deepfakes, another misinfo moment occurred. In his Fox News segment aired on January 11, anchor and conservative commentator Jesse Watters claimed that Swift had been floated as a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) asset to aid democratic voting after she posted a link to register to vote: “Around 4 years ago, the Pentagon’s psychological operations unit floated turning Taylor Swift into an asset during a NATO meeting.”
Watters’ Fox News segment baselessly accusing Swift of being a psyop (Source: X)
What follows, reported Forbes, is an edited clip of academic Alicia Marie Bargar, a research engineer from Johns Hopkins University, addressing a conference organized by NATO in 2019. Bargar presented research conducted by her and her colleagues on how information spreads online. She references Swift when speaking about celebrities' influence on public opinion, a tried and tested method most recently made popular by the Biden administration during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and commonly acknowledged elsewhere: “Celebrities, at least in the U.S., regularly will post pictures of themselves with an encouragement for people to go vote, and this has a measurable effect on voter turnout.” At no point does she suggest Swift is or should be a CIA asset.
“So, is Swift a front for a covert political agenda? ‘Primetime’ obviously has no evidence. If we did, we’d share it,” Watters continues, “But we’re curious because the pop star who endorsed Biden is urging millions of her followers to vote. She’s sharing links. And her boyfriend, NFL star Travis Kelce, is sponsored by Pfizer.”
Back in 2018, The Guardian covered Swift’s decision, for the first time in her career, to publicly back Democratic candidates as House Representatives in the Senate race in Tennessee, where she was registered to vote. In the article, vote.org’s director of communications told the publication that in the following 24 hours after Swift published the link, 64,000 voters registered. With Swift’s success making her more visible, her choice to air her political views, and Kelce’s appearance in a COVID-19 vaccine booster ad in 2023, the pair have become a red flag to the bull of conspiracy theories.
After Watter’s segment aired, a flurry of activity on social media had known misinformation accounts jumping on the claim, going as far as claiming Swift is “owned by the satanic deep state.” One tweet with over 400,000 views, posted on the same day as Watter’s segment, used a misattributed image to claim Swift is a clone of Satanist Anton LaVey’s daughter and connected her to the “Frazzledrip” conspiracy theory that involves celebrities and child sacrifice.
Misattributed conspiracy theory post targeting Swift (Source: X)
On the other side of the internet, the pushback was intense, with many publications labeling the TV segment a conspiracy theory, “outlandish,” and “bonkers.” Even the Pentagon appeared to treat it as a joke. As reported by Politico, “Pentagon spokesperson Sabrina Singh pushed back against Watters’ claim, referencing one of Swift’s big hits by saying in a statement, ‘As for this conspiracy theory, we are going to shake it off.’”
Although openly stating it was based on no evidence, this segment has seeded a barrage of misinformation about Swift. On the Fox News' coverage, Dr. Alan Rosenblatt, a digital and social media political strategist and adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University, explained to Logically Facts that Fox News “is an entertainment company that has a news division, not a news company,” adding the company “not only does not provide that distinction, it goes out of its way to make it difficult to see the difference. They make their opinion programs look like news programs, and they incorporate enough opinion content on their news programs to further that deception.”
Before the CIA conspiratorial moment in pop culture, Swift was the focus of what some perceived to be an attempt to “out” the star in a New York Times op-ed. The opinion piece opined that Swift was, maybe, possibly, why not? - queer and has been hinting as much via her music career for years. The piece was another demonstration of sparking speculation and misinformation - her lyrics and music videos were picked over for clues to lowkey signals of her queer sexuality, and she became the target of homophobic messages and conspiracy theories.
Swift herself has previously intimated her sexuality in a 2019 conversation with Vogue. She discussed the LGBTQ+ activism seen in her “You Need to Calm Down” music video, telling the writer, “Rights are being stripped from basically everyone who isn’t a straight white cisgender male,” adding, “I didn’t realize until recently that I could advocate for a community that I’m not a part of.” In the re-recorded version of her album “1989,” she wrote about slut shaming and speculation about her relationships: “If I only hung out with my female friends, people couldn’t sensationalize or sexualize that — right? I would learn later on that people could and people would.” Regardless of these essential details, the op-ed sparked “Gaylor” to trend on X.
In terms of legal recourse, E. Jean Carroll’s recent defamation case against former President Donal Trump shows precedent, as Dr. Rosenblatt told Logically Facts: “There is already a system set up for judging and punishing disinformation about a person's sexuality if that disclosure causes damage to that person's life. But the process can be long-drawn-out, expensive, and emotionally painful for the victim.”
“The ability to sue the publisher as well as the opinion writer creates more protection for those who are victimized. Not only does it provide an avenue for recovering damages, but it can provide a deterrence. But, to the extent that it does not deter the publishing of the op-ed in the first place, even a ruling for damages might not fix the damage done by the published article,” he concluded.
The LGBTQ+ publication Pink News explained the problem with non-consensual outing as a response to the piece – “Someone’s sexuality is ultimately no one else’s business. But the relentless, often toxic rumors and speculation about a celebrity’s personal life can put undue pressure on them to come out.” Forcing someone to admit their queer or gender identity can be deadly. As reported by the National LGBTQ Taskforce, it is a violation of privacy: “Coming out is a process and can be a difficult time for someone because of discrimination, homophobia, or potential marginalization from their families and community at large.”
At present, Taylor Swift may struggle to counter the dizzying amount of misinformation she is being targeted by, and she is far from the only victim. Fox News recently settled a defamation lawsuit in which they were accused of pushing election misinformation and were forced to pay millions of dollars as a result.
Dr. Rosenblatt explains that what makes Fox News different lies in their cleverly constructed contractual obligations: “Many of the daytime programs on Fox are news programs, but most of the Primetime shows and the morning show Fox & Friends are part of the Entertainment Division and the hosts of those shows are entertainers, not journalists.” He continues, “None of these hosts have journalist contracts with Fox News Corp. They have entertainer contracts. That means they are not contractually bound to follow journalistic ethics, like giving money to or endorsing candidates and not knowingly reporting false information.”
As reported by Equality Now, a feminist human rights organization, there are no international laws that include the language “deepfake,” and the EU’s Digital Services Act does not consider sexual deepfakes to be illegal content. However, in the U.K., “in the recently adopted Online Safety Act, deepfake image-based sexual abuse is now specifically provided for in the law,” the report states. Professor Barker notes, “Some of the provisions of the Online Safety Act 2023 will criminalize some elements of imagery abuse, but this is just the legislative provisions - enforcement and culture change are still required, so while legislators have more to do, so too do social media platforms, and society more generally.”
She concludes, “Legislation is not always the solution, even where it can provide a framework - platforms should be doing more collaboratively so that harmful content such as deepfake imagery does not proliferate from one platform to another.”