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A new era of content generation and public communication

Synthetic media is one out five key trends for corporate communications in 2022 according to the Communications Trend Radar. Synthetic media – that’s content that has been partially or completely generated by computers – often with the help of artificial intelligence. The created texts, photos, videos, or audio files appear highly realistic and are hard to tell apart from real content. Synthetic media can shorten production times and lower production costs, create new types of media formats and can help to personalize content. At the same time the improved technology exacerbates the risks of manipulated content and cyberattacks through deep fakes.

A key technology trend to watch out for

Synthetic media is no longer a futuristic scenario. The underlying technology has recently matured to a level where the content produced appears highly realistic. Virtual influencers transform the influencer marketing by major brands. Various apps and open-source software tools have been introduced that make the affordable creation of synthetic media available to the masses without the need for extensive technological skills. Synthetic media has arrived in the here and now. 

“ The underlying technology has advanced so much that synthetic media is being used in multiple ways already. It certainly has the potential to change communication in the coming years.”

Professor Stefan Stieglitz, University of Potsdam

How can synthetic media be used in communications?

Synthetic media provides opportunities for communication managers to explore new creative content and formats. Two exemplary scenarios:

  • Collaborate with virtual influencers: Recently, a new type of influencer appeared on social media: computer-generated, animated avatars. These avatars have their own social media accounts, sometimes with millions of followers. A well-known example is @lilmiquela on Instagram. Miquela and her Instagram page with 3 million followers were developed by a studio based in Los Angeles. Virtual influencers provide unprecedented opportunities for targeting and personalization (e.g. in terms of appearance, voice, and values). Initial studies suggest that virtual influencers are a viable alternative to human influencers but should not appear too human-like as this might evoke skepticism among users (Arsenyan & Mirowska, 2021).
  • Apply deepfake technology to personalize content: Deepfakes are photos, videos, or audio files (of humans) that have been partially or fully created with artificial intelligence (AI). It allows to replace the face of a person in a photo or video with another face (“face swapping”) or to read a text out in someone else’s voice (“text-to-speech”). This technology can be used, e.g. to develop multilingual videos of a CEO addressing the employees in their native language. Deepfakes have already appeared in public media, for example the “Malaria Must Die” of David Beckham speaking in nine different languages. In the last few years, deepfake technology has become accessible to the public (sometimes free of charge) through apps (e.g., FaceApp, Zao, Reface) and open-source software (e.g., DeepFaceLab). Besides, there are software companies producing deepfakes and synthetic media, for example, for internal communications (Synthesia). 

Advantages of synthetic media

What kind of advantages can synthetic media offer for communication managers?

  • Cut production time and costs for content by dynamically creating, updating, or correcting audio and video files with deepfake technology. 
  • Improve personalization of content by creating multilingual advertisements or instructional videos as audio and video deepfakes.
  • Enhance the customer experience with photo and video deepfakes. For example, the technology allows customers to try on cosmetics, eyeglasses, hairstyles, or clothes virtually.
  • Create novel, and improved types of media content – e.g. brand avatars.
  • Exert more control, e.g., in influencer marketing, by designing avatars according to individual needs and preferences.
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Be prepared for deepfake manipulation and cyber attacks

Synthetic media also raises concerns as it blurs the lines between reality and imagination, and exacerbates the risks of manipulation. Computer-generated or modified voices and videos are difficult to distinguish from real content. This could be abused for cyberattacks against corporations. It could harm corporate reputation. And it can create an environment of distrust that puts more pressure on communications.

To prepare for deepfake risks, communication leaders and professionals could take the following precautions: 

  1. Record and store original content with activity logs: While potentially controversial from a privacy perspective, this could help to identify and expose deepfakes used to falsely frame someone for having said or done something. 
  2. Adopt deepfake detection technologies: They spot small irregularities in deepfakes which are imperceptible to humans. Although an “arms race” can be expected between deepfake production and detection, this should still offer some protection.
  3. Advocate for legal protection: Current legal frameworks inadequately cover the risks of deepfakes. New regulations are necessary to protect companies and their representatives. 
  4. Leverage trust between brands and customers: Strong brands which generally deliver on what they promise and base their practices on strong ethics are usually better protected against deepfake threats. 
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About the study

For the second time the Academic Society for Management & Communication presented the Communications Trend Radar – an interdisciplinary and scientific study on the most important trends that will influence communication management in the near future. 

The study analyzes changes in the areas of society, management, and technology. For 2022, the research teams proposes the trends Language Awareness, Closed Communication, Gigification, Synthetic Media, and Cybersecurity. 

These trends were selected and scored on a scientifically sound basis, developed by a research team at Leipzig University and the University of Potsdam (led by Professors Stefan Stieglitz from Business Information Systems, and Ansgar Zerfass from Communication Management). More than 100 sources from research and practice were included. Selected aspects will be further researched in in-depth projects. The study aims to support communication managers in setting the course and guide decisions.