How Reface is Getting Away With Digital Blackface and Body Bullying

My face on the bodies of Miley Cyrus, Kylie Jenner and Beyoncé, as created by Reface. (Reface/Rae Alexandra)

"W

e see the app as a personalization platform where people will be able to live different lives during their one lifetime. So everyone can be anyone."

So says Roman Mogylnyi, CEO and co-founder of Reface—an enormously popular new app that takes the faces of users and blends them into celebrity videos, movie clips and more. Current sections on the app include Game of Thrones, WWE, Billboard Musicians, Marvel, Tarantino Movies, and many, many others.

Ostensibly, Reface—which is free, and does not have a recommended age or official user guide—is a way for people to live out their Hollywood and MTV fantasies via the medium of deepfakes (basically a high-end version of face-swapping). In practice, however, the app poses a number of social and psychological conundrums—not least of which is the fact that it offers a digital form of Blackface.

Reface was started in the Ukraine and was, until August, called Doublicat. As of the end of that month, the app had been downloaded over 20 million times. There can be no doubt that Reface has a diverse international community of users to appeal to, and needs to provide content reflecting that. The problem is that when the user's face is blended with a celebrity, Reface tends to err on the side of the celebrity skin tone, not the user's.

In my own experiments with the app, my very pale skin was repeatedly toned darker to match the likes of Rihanna, Beyoncé, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and Kanye West. When I Refaced with Kylie Jenner, her bronzer got cut off at my eyebrows and my natural skin tone remained on the rest of my face. With the artists of color, my whiteness disappeared completely. Most of the results were offensive enough that I cannot, in good conscience, include them here. (Don't even get me started on this week's awful "In Memory of Chadwick Boseman" section.)

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Here's Saturday Night Live alum Chris Kattan as Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion to give you some idea of how skin tone is altered:

While there are surely many white users who will actively avoid exercising their newfound access to digital Blackface, a great many more feel just fine about indulging. Last week, I saw a friend from high school gleefully Reface her white husband into Michael Jackson's "Beat It" video and publicly laugh about it. These are not people who would ever dream of donning Blackface to go to a costume party, but they had no qualms about posting the digital version to Facebook. It's inevitable that thousands of other white people are going to do the same.

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uestions have been raised online about Reface—but they've centered on the issue of privacy and the collection of biometric data. Based on Reface's privacy policy, there is currently little to worry about in that regard. The policy is clear that facial features are never used "for any reason other than to provide you with the face-swapping functionality of Reface." And: "Reface does not introduce the face recognition technologies or other technical means for processing of biometric data for the unique identification or authentication of a user."

Which can only be a good thing, given that there are zero restrictions around uploading photos of other people who have not consented to having their likeness used. (One five-star review in the Google Play store says: "I've been taking images from my friends' Facebook pages and sending them videos. They look pretty darn similar...")

That Reface can merge user photos with celebrity faces, based on a single photograph, is a disturbing indication of just how far deepfake technology has progressed in the last couple of years. In Feb. 2018, Samantha Cole, an expert on the developing technology, told NPR that "hundreds of photos of an individual's face" were needed to create a deepfake video. Reface now does it with one.

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eface also poses additional issues for anyone who lacks an impenetrable sense of self-confidence. Studies have suggested that as many as 78% of 17-year-old girls and 80% of women are "unhappy with their bodies." An app that allows them to see their faces atop "perfect" celebrity forms is poised to compound those insecurities.

In my own experiments, I went about putting my head onto the bodies of Victoria's Secret models, Cara Delevingne and a variety of other celebrities on the app, all of whom are four to six sizes smaller than me, with considerably longer limbs. The experience immediately reminded me of the teen years I wasted trying and failing to mold my body into a smaller, more "acceptable" shape. I am acutely aware, even decades later, that access to Reface during my adolescence would have wreaked absolute havoc with my levels of confidence and depression.

In addition, like so many other of 2020's most popular apps, Reface automatically puts filters onto the face of the user. For the purposes of research, I uploaded a selfie that was makeup-free and intentionally unflattering. Before Reface applied my bad photo to any celebrities, my face was automatically cleared of blemishes and given more prominent cheekbones. I had asked for neither.

Concern about this kind of filtering, first popularized by Snapchat, has been widespread for some time. Last year, a cosmetic surgeon named Dr. Max Malik told the New Statesman: "These filters and edits have become the norm, altering people’s perception of beauty worldwide... They can have a significant impact on a patient’s self-esteem.”

None of these glaring issues have done anything to slow the booming popularity of Reface. It has a 4.6 star rating in the Google Play store, and is currently number 22 on the United States iOS free app charts. One of the other most popular apps of the day, TikTok, has already been acknowledged as a platform where cultural appropriation and racist stereotyping can run rampant. But little has yet been said of Reface—an app that's so much worse, it's right on the edge of minstrelsy. TikTok's issues with cultural appropriation rest largely on the user's ability to lip-sync Black voices; Reface actually makes the user's face Black.

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In a year when America is so publicly grappling with its long history of racism, Reface deserves to be brought into the conversation. I, for one, will be dragging it into the trash can.