Disaster: President Nixon announces that Apollo 11's lunar module has crashed on the moon

To cleanse the palate, via Scientific American, a phenomenal professionally done deepfake … that’s not quite a deepfake. Deepfakes are when one person’s face is overlaid on another’s. What you’re about to see is called “video dialogue replacement.” If I understand it correctly, original footage of Nixon speaking was run through a computer, the computer learned the different ways that his face contorted as he spoke, then it re-created natural-seeming contortions to sync to an entirely new piece of audio.

Which in this case also happened to be fake. A company that specializes in audio mimicry analyzed Nixon’s voice, had an actor read some lines, et voila — soon it had “Nixon” speaking those same lines.

The result is a piece of alternate-history voodoo titled “In Event of Moon Disaster,” which is taken from the title of an actual speech William Safire wrote for Nixon in case the Apollo 11 mission ended badly. And I do mean badly: Read it and you’ll see that it imagines a scenario in which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin aren’t necessarily killed on impact when the lunar module touches down. They’re alive. They’re just stranded, unable to get off the surface and rejoin the command module, and thus doomed. In reality, thankfully, Safire’s speech wasn’t needed.

In alternate reality, it was. And you’re about to watch Nixon deliver it to a grieving planet.

One of the things that makes this eerie beyond the skill of the fakery and the harrowing plausibility of the narrative is the how the older, grainier video format “disguises” the deception. The audio sounds a little hollow at times, the video is a touch jerky on occasion — but it’s all too easy to chalk that up to the poor quality of TV transmissions in 1969 and suspend your disbelief. I’d be fascinated to see the results if, say, a thousand Americans were shown the Nixon clip here and told that this was a secret recording he made at the time which had never aired until now. Would even one of them doubt that what they were seeing is real unless they were primed to doubt by having deepfakes mentioned to them first?

Someday when this technology is frighteningly ubiquitous there’ll be entire TV networks devoted to alternate-history programming and the people who slacked off in class years ago won’t have any idea what’s true and what’s not. Speaking of which, as a bonus below, here’s what the audio mimicry company produced when it matched Safire’s moon speech to JFK’s voice and speech patterns. It’s a little rougher (presumably because they didn’t polish it as much as the Nixon audio) but still impressive. This comes from an even more radically alternate history in which JFK is still president in 1969 because there was no assassination and we ended up repealing the 22nd Amendment so that the Kennedys could rule us forever.