When someone who appeared to be the 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 wildly uncomfortable,” Sarah, an expert on Pattinson who’s known for her TikToks about the “Twilight” franchise said. “Because whoever’s doing it is obviously using his face in some way, but I didn’t really understand it.”
Other TikTok users were more convinced by the account. “It’s him,” one person commented on a recent video. “The whole thing about R-Pats is that no one else looks remotely like him.”
The account is the latest unlikely celebrity profile to show up on the app and cause mass confusion, and experts say it’s highly likely that it could be what’s known as a deepfake.
A deepfake is synthetic digital content that uses artificial intelligence and visual effects to visually or audibly manipulate a video. From crude face-swap videos made using mobile apps to sophisticated software that can make a person appear to do or say something they never did, deepfake videos are increasingly common online.
Since the “Robert Pattinson” account (@iam_pattinson) posted on TikTok last month, it has accrued 87.6 million views and nearly 600,000 followers. The person featured in the account’s videos bears an uncanny resemblance to the “Twilight” and “The Batman” star, 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.
In one video, the person who looks like Pattinson models a knockoff Batman costume bought off eBay. In another, he lip-syncs the opening lines of J. Cole’s “Work Out” and poses in front of a ring light.
“The sheepish, weird body language in the first video,” Sarah noted, “was so not anything that he would ever do.”
Some viewers have started referring to the person in the videos as “Bob Pattinson.”
NBC News was unable to reach the account’s owner for comment.
Pattinson’s representatives did not immediately respond to requests to confirm or deny that the account actually belonged to him. Pattinson doesn’t have any public social media accounts — during a 2017 Reddit AMA, he said he’s considered joining social media “only in dark moments,” and in a 2019 interview joked that he’s “too old and boring” for Instagram. He admitted to using a secret Twitter account in 2020, but doesn’t use it to post publicly.
“There’s no place he can come and say, ‘That’s not me, you guys,'” Sarah, who asked to only be identified by her first name for privacy reasons, said. “I think that he makes for a potentially good deepfake.”
Sarah theorizes that someone might impersonate Pattinson because of the moment the actor is having in pop culture right now.
“With ‘Batman,’ not only was he cool to women, but all of a sudden, the men were starting to claim him too in a way that they never had,” Sarah said.
Even forensic experts who aren’t as familiar with Pattinson’s mannerisms are skeptical of the account.
“The high level of realism of those videos are pretty startling, but I’m not surprised.”
university of buffalo professor siwei lyu
According to Siwei Lyu, a professor at the University of Buffalo who researches digital forgeries and machine learning, the account has some red flags. Lyu believes the account is impersonating Pattinson with high-quality deepfake technology.
“The high level of realism of those videos are pretty startling, 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 warping.
Lyu and his students are working on programs to detect digitally manipulated content, like an algorithm that can pick up on features that humans may not catch.
But even to the naked eye, Lyu said certain details in @iam_pattinson’s videos don’t quite add up.
Lyu pointed out the difference between the ears on @iam_pattinson and Pattinson’s actual ears — while the real Pattinson’s ears are more pointed at the tip, the ears on @iam_pattinson are rounded. According to research by University of California, Berkeley professor Hany Farid and postdoctoral researcher Shruti Agarwal, each human ear structure is unique and “provides a rich source of forensic information.”
Lyu suggested that like many deepfake videos, @iam_pattinson’s videos could be made by superimposing Pattinson’s face over that of 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 talking can subtly affect ear movement. Facial features can be changed, but “the shape of the ear, that 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 within certain facial parameters, like the cheeks and chins. Facial modeling software typically excludes the ears.
In addition to the ears, Agarwal said that the mouth movements in @iam_pattinson’s lip-syncing videos stood out to her. Certain sounds, like “B,” “P” and “M” require the lips to close entirely to produce that sound. Agarwal pointed out the “mismatch” in the movements in the videos.
“It’s the physiology of our face, that everything in our face is connected. And if we are just going to replace one part of the face and make it move a certain way, it will not fix the other parts,” she continued. “It is going to disrupt the natural motion.”
“Humans are pretty good at analyzing human faces because that’s what we have been doing all our lives.”
University of California, Berkeley postdoctorate researcher Shruti agarwal
Some viewers may be duped by videos, but others find them deeply unsettling. The “uncanny valley” phenomenon is when a feeling of unease is elicited in a viewer when a human replica falls just short of being a convincing fake. Higher quality deepfakes may be creepier than low-quality ones because these visual details are more obvious, Agarwal added.
There’s no way to quantify the “signal that humans are catching on to,” Agarwal said, but she theorizes that facial cues may set off the alarms in our brains. The way @iam_pattinson’s eyes shift in the videos, for example, doesn’t quite align with his head movement, warning viewers that “something is missing.”
“Humans are pretty good at analyzing human faces because that’s what we have been doing all our lives,” Agarwal said. “So I think any disruption in those natural movements is pretty quickly caught by human eyes.”
Some people may feel creeped out viewing deepfakes, but synthesized videos continue to fool social media users. Chris Ume, a Belgian visual effects artist, gained millions of views on TikTok with a series of videos depicting actor Tom Cruise doing a magic trick, playing golf and falling over.
In an interview, Ume said he “didn’t want to fool people at any moment.”
“If I can help in creating awareness, or even work on detection in the future, I would love to,” he continued.
To discern what’s real and what’s not, Agarwal recommends looking for “flickering” around the edges of a figure’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 videos, but the “most obvious telltale is flickering in the face.”
The 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 into a celebrity’s mouth and convey messages that are potentially offensive or controversial,” Lyu said. “It is important to make the public aware that videos can be synthesized and be manipulated, so they need to be careful.”
Sarah, the “Twilight” expert, is still unsettled by how many TikTok users were fooled by the account.
“It’s really kind of scary that somebody can take something that far, this person has posted six or seven videos and people still don’t know,” Sarah said.