When someone who appeared to be actor Robert Pattinson showed up on TikTok about a month ago, fans couldn’t believe it.
“I was like, crawling out of my skin, I was so uncomfortable,” said Sarah, a Pattinson pundit known for her TikToks on the “Twilight” franchise. “Because whoever does it is obviously using their face somehow, but I didn’t really get it.”
Other TikTok users were more convinced by the account. “That’s him,” one person commented on a recent video. “All about the R-Pats is that no one else remotely resembles them.”
The account is the latest unlikely celebrity profile to appear on the app and cause confusion, and experts say it’s highly likely to be what’s being called a deepfake.
A deepfake is synthetic digital content that uses artificial intelligence and visual effects to visually or audibly manipulate video. From raw face-swapping videos made using mobile apps to sophisticated software that can make it look like a person is doing or saying something they’ve never done, deepfake videos are becoming more common online.
Since the “Robert Pattinson” (@iam_pattinson) account posted on TikTok last month, he has racked up 87.6 million views and nearly 600,000 followers. The person featured in the account’s videos bears an uncanny resemblance to the star of ‘Twilight’ and ‘The Batman’, confusing TikTok viewers with otherwise mundane videos.
The account’s first video has over 20 million views and shows what appears to be the actor shyly waving to the camera with the tag #robertpattinsonedit.
“So the sheepish, weird body language in the first video,” Sarah noted, “wasn’t something he would ever do.”
Some viewers started calling the person in the videos “Bob Pattinson”.
NBC News could not reach the owner of the account for comment.
Representatives for Pattinson did not immediately respond to requests to confirm or deny that the account actually belonged to him. Pattinson has no public social media accounts – for a while WADA Reddit 2017he said he considered joining social media “only in dark times” and in a interview 2019 joked that he was “too old and boring” for Instagram. He admitted to use a secret Twitter account in 2020, but do not use it to post publicly.
“There’s no place he can come and say, ‘It’s not me, guys,'” said Sarah, who asked to be identified by only her first name for privacy reasons. “I think he makes a potentially good deepfake.”
Sarah theorizes that someone might be impersonating Pattinson because of the moment the actor has in pop culture right now.
“With ‘Batman,’ not only was he cool with women, but all of a sudden men started calling for him too in a way they never had,” Sarah said.
Even forensic experts not so familiar with Pattinson’s mannerisms are skeptical of the account.
“The high level of realism in these videos is quite surprising, but I’m not surprised.”
buffalo university professor siwei lyu
According to Siwei Lyu, a professor at the University at Buffalo who studies digital counterfeits and machine learning, the account has red flags. Lyu thinks the account is impersonating Pattinson with high quality deepfake technology.
“The high level of realism in these videos is quite surprising, but I’m not surprised,” Lyu said. He added that deepfake videos tend to be “low quality to hide particular artifacts”, or features that indicate facial deformity.
Lyu and his students are working on programs to detect digitally manipulated content, such as an algorithm that can detect features that humans cannot.
But even with the naked eye, Lyu said some details in @iam_pattinson’s videos didn’t quite match up.
Lyu pointed out the difference between @iam_pattinson’s ears and Pattinson’s actual ears — while Pattinson’s real ears are more pointed at the tip, @iam_pattinson’s ears are rounded. According to to research by Hany Farid, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Shruti Agarwal, postdoctoral researcher, each structure of the human ear is unique and “provides a rich source of forensic information”.
Lyu suggested that like many deepfake videos, the @iam_pattinson videos could be made by superimposing Pattinson’s face on someone who has a similar physique and hair color.
“The face may look like the person, the subject, but the other part of the face may be a telltale sign,” he said.
Human “ear prints” are complex, and certain facial expressions and speech can subtly affect ear movement. Facial features can be changed, but “the shape of the ear is something very difficult to change,” he said.
Agarawal agreed that the videos are “pretty well done”, but the person in them “is not Robert Pattinson”. She explained that most deepfake technology only replaces features of certain facial parameters, such as cheeks and chin. Facial modeling software usually excludes the ears.
In addition to the ears, Agarwal said the mouth movements in @iam_pattinson’s lip-sync videos stood out for her. Some sounds, like “B”, “P” and “M” require the lips to close completely to produce that sound. Agarwal pointed to the “lag” of movements in the videos.
“It’s the physiology of our face, that everything in our face is connected. And if we’re just going to replace one part of the face and make it move in a certain way, it won’t fix the other parts,” he said. she continued. “It’s going to disrupt the natural movement.”
“Humans are pretty good at analyzing human faces because that’s what we’ve been doing all our lives.”
Shruti agarwal, postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at Berkeley
Some viewers may be fooled by the videos, but others find them deeply disturbing. The “strange valley” phenomenon occurs when a sense of unease is elicited in a viewer when a human replica just falls short of being a convincing fake. High-quality deepfakes can be scarier than low-quality ones because those visual details are more obvious, Agarwal added.
There’s no way to quantify the “signal that humans are picking up,” Agarwal said, but she theorizes that facial cues can trigger the alarms in our brains. The way @iam_pattinson’s eyes move in the videos, for example, doesn’t quite match the movement of his head, warning viewers that “something is missing”.
“Humans are pretty good at analyzing human faces because that’s what we’ve been doing all our lives,” Agarwal said. “So I think any disruption to these natural movements is pretty quickly detected by human eyes.”
Some people may feel scared watching deepfakes, but synthesized videos continue to fool social media users. Chris Ume, a Belgian visual effects artist, has gained millions of views on TikTok with a series of videos showing actor Tom Cruise doing a magic trick, golfing and falling.
In an interview, Ume said he “didn’t want to deceive people at any time.”
“If I can help create awareness, or even work on detection in the future, I would love to do so,” he continued.
To discern what’s real and what’s not, Agarwal recommends looking for “flicker” around the edges of a character’s face, which indicates that the face may have been digitally manipulated. “Subtle clues” like mismatched ears or strange mouth movements may be harder to detect on lower quality video, but the “most obvious telltale is facial flickering.”
Videos appearing to impersonate Pattinson are relatively harmless, Lyu said, but he urges viewers to approach similar content with a critical eye.
“[Someone] can put voices in a celebrity’s mouth and convey potentially offensive or controversial messages,” Lyu said. “
‘Twilight’ expert Sarah is still troubled by the number of TikTok users who have been duped by the account.
“It’s really scary that someone could go this far, this person posted six or seven videos and people still don’t know,” Sarah said.