Entertainment Celebrity Royal Deepfake ‘Queen’ delivers alternative Christmas message on UK’s Channel 4
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Deepfake ‘Queen’ delivers alternative Christmas message on UK’s Channel 4

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UK television station Channel 4 has sparked controversy for airing a digitally altered video of Queen Elizabeth II delivering her annual Christmas message.

However the station says the segment is “a stark warning” about deepfake technology and the “proliferation of misinformation” in the digital age.

The real British monarch traditionally delivers a Christmas Day speech aired around the world.

In a statement announcing the four-minute segment’s airing on the afternoon of Christmas Day in the UK, Channel 4 said the fake Queen appears “startlingly familiar at first” as she addresses what she and her husband Prince Philip have been doing in lockdown.

But the fake address takes a bizarre turn when she performs a TikTok dance routine.

It ended with her making a statement about “trust”, warning viewers to question “whether what we see and hear is always as it seems”.

Channel 4 says the segment shows firsthand how advanced deepfake technology can enable misinformation and “fake news”.

“Deepfake technology is the frightening new frontier in the battle between misinformation and truth,” Channel 4 director of programmes Ian Katz said.

“This year’s Alternative Christmas Address — seemingly delivered by one of the most familiar and trusted figures in the nation — is a powerful reminder that we can no longer trust our own eyes.”

In the video, the ‘Queen’ discusses several of the Royal Family’s most controversial moment this year, including Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s departure from royal duties, and the Duke of York’s relationship with disgraced financier and alleged sex offender Jeffrey Epstein.

The decision was widely criticised by social media users even before it aired on Christmas Day.

Several Twitter users responded to Channel 4’s promo for the segment by calling for a boycott of the station, while other slammed it as “disgraceful” and “disrespectful” to the Queen.

The deepfake Queen was created by Oscar-winning VFX studio Framestore, with actress and impersonator Debra Stephenson playing the Queen.

The BBC’s royal correspondent Nicholas Witchell criticised the quality of the impersonation.

“There have been countless imitations of the Queen. This isn’t a particularly good one,” he told the BBC.

“The voice sounds what it is — a rather poor attempt to impersonate her. What makes it troubling is the use of video technology to attempt to sync her lips to the words being spoken.”

First airing in 1993, Channel 4’s alternative Christmas message airs at the same time as the Queen’s official address, and has previously featured the President of Iran, whistleblower Edward Snowden and Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G.

Official message praises people for rising to challenges

In her address to the nation, aired on British broadcasters on Friday, Queen Elizabeth II described how people of all faiths were unable to celebrate festivals, such as Passover, Easter, Eid and Vaisakhi, in their usual way due to the pandemic.

But she added how she had been “moved” by people’s spirits in the face of adversity.

“Remarkably, a year that has necessarily kept people apart has, in many ways, brought us closer,” she said.

“Across the Commonwealth, my family and I have been inspired by stories of people volunteering in their communities, helping those in need.

“In the United Kingdom and around the world, people have risen magnificently to the challenges of the year, and I am so proud and moved by this quiet, indomitable spirit. To our young people in particular I say thank you for the part you have played.”

“Today, our frontline services still shine that lamp for us – supported by the amazing achievements of modern science – and we owe them a debt of gratitude,” she added.

The Queen and her husband, Prince Philip, have also changed their plans for this year by spending Christmas Day at Windsor Castle to the west of London without other members of their family, a palace spokesperson told dpa on Friday.

This year is the first in decades that the couple has not travelled to the Sandringham estate in eastern England to celebrate with the royal family.

Usually, hundreds of fans gather to greet members of the royal family as they go to church at Christmas, but due to the pandemic, the ritual has been cancelled this year.

No visits are planned this year, Buckingham Palace’s spokesperson said. Instead of her traditional church attendance, the Queen plans to attend a private service in a chapel on the castle grounds.

Prince Charles and his wife, Camilla, the duchess of Cornwall, are due to celebrate in Gloucestershire. Prince William, duke of Cambridge, and Kate, the duchess of Cambridge, are spending Christmas in Amner Hall, a country house 3 kilometres away from Sandringham.

-with agencies