As the advancement of AI technology gains momentum, higher ed brands may face a new kind of cyber threat in deepfake attacks.
I’m a big proponent of using AI applications to take the busy work out of higher ed marketing.
Unfortunately, some bad actors have weaponized AI for malicious means, and higher ed brands of all shapes and sizes are potentially at risk.
One of the nastier tactics some schools have already faced is the use of deepfakes.
What Are Deepfakes?
The U.S. Government Accountability Office defines a deepfake as “a video, photo, or audio recording that seems real but has been manipulated with AI.”
While AI has accelerated the threat of deepfakes, they’ve been a growing concern long before the rise of machine learning models like ChatGPT.
In 2018, entertainer Jordan Peele released a video of himself impersonating former U.S. President Barack Obama, warning the general public about the implications of deepfakes:
Peele’s video shed light on the new disquieting reality that people could use deepfake technology to spread misinformation and create confusion.
A lot’s changed since 2018. AI has made creating a deepfake so easy that even yours truly could pull off a pretty convincing sketch … and it only cost me twenty bucks:
So how could a deepfake attack affect your school’s brand perception?
How Can Deepfakes Impact My Institution’s Brand?
In February 2023, three New York City high schoolers posted a deepfake video of a local middle school principal on TikTok (Be warned — strong language is implied in this Vice News article).
The perpetrators programmed the deepfake version of the principal to spout violent, racist comments about black students.
Law enforcement officials eventually uncovered the truth behind the video, but the short-term chaos it caused was distressing. Parents blasted the school district for what they mistakenly believed was a systemic problem, even threatening lawsuits.
After the dust settled, one thing was certain. The school displayed a clear failure in communication while the situation was ongoing because they were woefully unprepared to deal with it.
Three high schoolers did this. So imagine how someone with more resources and experience could disrupt your institution’s brand with a concerted deepfake attack.
Now you understand the risk. Here’s how your marketing team can prepare for it.
1. Develop a Crisis Communication Plan for Deepfake Incidents
Crisis management is a familiar concept for most colleges and universities, but deepfakes have added a new twist to protecting a school’s reputation.
Perhaps the most alarming part of the incident I just outlined above was the communication gap between the school district and confused parents.
School and law enforcement officials knew very early that the video was fake, but they inadvertently left parents and students in the dark.
Here’s a direct quote from Norma Perera, one of the parents cited in the Vice News article:
“There were a lot of questions from parents who didn’t understand why the school was so vague about informing the parents about what had transpired about these threats.”
If your institution is the target of a deepfake attack, you must be prepared to address the situation with your school’s stakeholders clearly and transparently.
So create a proactive communication strategy that:
- Identifies key spokespersons — Understand who will be responsible for communicating with students, parents, alumni, and other key stakeholders if a deepfake crisis arises.
- Prioritizes transparency — Be open and honest about what steps you’re taking to detect and prevent deepfake incursions.
- Includes a prepared response — Plan press releases and messaging for social media and other local community outlets that address how you’re handling the situation.
The worst thing you can do in the case of a deepfake attack is to curate a public-facing perception that you’re doing nothing.
So get ahead of this potential PR nightmare by developing a communication plan.
2. Educate Your School’s Stakeholders About Deepfakes
It’ll be much easier to relay how you’re dealing with a deepfake crisis if your college or university’s community understands what you’re dealing with.
Deepfakes are still a relatively new complication, and some of your stakeholders may not yet grasp their potential ramifications.
Here are some practical ways you can spread the word about deepfakes:
- Informational campaigns — Raise local awareness about the existence of deepfakes and point out some easily identifiable markers
- Workshops and webinars — Organize expert-led forums that provide hands-on experience in spotting more nuanced signals in manipulated media
- Regular updates — Keep your school’s community up-to-date on new potential deepfake dangers through newsletters and staff meetings
You’ll reinforce trust in your school’s brand by raising awareness and promoting digital literacy around the threats deepfakes pose.
3. Collaborate With Tech Companies That Specialize in Deepfake Detection
Thankfully, as the technology to create and distribute deepfakes is improving, so are the tools to detect them.
And big companies are throwing big money at them.
As early as 2020, computer chip giant Intel partnered with a human rights group to develop FakeCatcher, a deepfake detector with a 96% accuracy rate.
Microsoft has also launched its deepfake detection tool, Video Authenticator.
Unfortunately, these juggernauts are currently only partnering with news organizations and social media platforms to help stem the influx of manipulated videos, though that may change in the future.
In the meantime, smaller tech startups are constantly popping up to help smaller businesses and nonprofits protect themselves from deepfake attacks.
Deepware.AI offers a free scanner on their website that can detect AI-generated face manipulation. However, their service is currently limited to videos that are 10 minutes or less.
It can only take one well-orchestrated deepfake attack to stir up a brand crisis at your school. So I believe it’s worth at least researching potential partners who can help prevent that from happening.
Don’t Allow Deepfakes to Tarnish Your School’s Brand
Regardless of how you might feel about it, AI is here… and it’s not going anywhere.
I’m cautiously optimistic that AI tools can help propel higher ed marketing teams into the future, but we must remain vigilant against new threats that come with this exciting technology.
As deepfakes become more nuanced, staying informed, prepared, and proactive is more critical than ever to protecting your institution’s brand.
This digital age is moving fast, and it’s tough to keep up with it all. If you have questions about how to protect your college or university from these cyber threats, don’t hesitate to reach out!
Together, we can navigate your school through this exhilarating Age of AI.
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