Image by Florian Olivo


Karen Pilch

  Imagine this scenario - you open Instagram, Facebook, Tik Tok, or any other social media and see a person giving an outrageous statement such as: “The right of women to vote should be taken away, it’s a danger to our democracy.” Now imagine this statement coming from a president, prime minister, or any other important representative of a powerful institution. Years ago something like that wouldn’t have happened, but today it’s getting harder and harder to distinguish between what is real and what is fake on the internet, especially with the growing popularity of deepfakes.

     So what are deepfakes? You have probably actually already seen or been sent many. For those not familiar with the term, a deepfake is a form of synthetic media that can be manipulated to showcase whatever one desires. It can range from a harmless claim, for example, “dogs can fly,” to a dangerous one such as the previous example. Deepfakes are devices that one can use for entertainment, fake news, a hoax, or even pornographic content using anyone’s face, more often than not without consent. 

     Nowadays, we are heavily reliant on technology, using it for our calendars, streaming, reading, making reminders, and more. Smartphones are a necessity and we take the continuous advancement of computers and software as a given, and every year we are presented with new models of phones, computers, and other technology. But it’s no secret that with this transition to online life, especially now, certain dangers become more prevalent. We hear and read rumors of elections being manipulated by hackers, dangerous algorithms or viruses prowling around on the internet, or our private data being collected and leaked by tech moguls. Recently, the idea of deepfakes has created a new threat, and the dangers of its improper use are lurking on the horizon. 

     Why can deepfakes be so dangerous? The technology makes use of machine learning and artificial intelligence, like most devices, but with a deceptive twist. According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), new voice cloning technology is making it harder and harder to distinguish between real voices and those created by deepfakes. It can be especially perilous for seniors that are unfamiliar with this kind of technology, and even for a person fully aware of the existence of deepfakes, it could be extremely difficult to distinguish between a fake voice and a real one of their friend or loved one. The question then becomes, what will happen in a few years when deepfakes become much more advanced, if they already create problems now?

     We can only ponder on the capabilities of deepfakes of the future. Maybe it will be used to create widespread social distress or an uprising. Perhaps a person close to you will find themselves online doing or saying something that never actually happened because someone manipulated their image as a way of revenge or sabotage. Conceivably, the amount of financial frauds and extortion could increase enormously. Of course, these are only guesses. Currently, the most common use of deepfakes is for entertainment purposes. Even so, we must be careful and always investigate the truth on our own, so as to become aware of the growing perils of  this technology. Now more than ever, we have to ask ourselves what is real and what is fake.

     Such expressions are not only offensive, but reinforce negative and misogynistic stereotypes that objectify women and present them as inferior beings. This is even more dangerous because language shapes reality and influences how women are perceived and treated. Thus, keeping these terms in our vernacular cannot lead to better treatment of women.

     At the same time, a man is defined as a being “conscious and responsible for his acts," a "man of business," "of wit," "of the heart," and " of respect." The absence of words portraying women in such a positive way, like businesswoman or career woman, is conspicuous. Moreover, the absence in the definition of "man" of words such as "violent" or "gigolo" is a clear double standard.

     Dictionaries are educational tools that many of us reference on a regular basis, and Treccani is one of the most consulted in our schools, libraries, homes. It is also one of the most visible Italian linguistic sources. When first requested to modify these definitions in a more inclusive and less sexist way, Treccani responded that the request could not be accepted because the dictionary should record the evolution of language without censorship, in spite of the misogynistic imprint that a centuries-old, male-dominant culture has impressed on the idea of a woman. Even the Oxford dictionary responded similarly when confronted with the same issue, although they later had the courage to be self-critical and reexamine their platform.

     In an attempt to make Treccani reevaluate their decision, activist Maria Beatrice Giovanardi and other influential figureheads of Italian politics have asked the editors to modify the entry and make it less sexist and aligned with the true role of women in society. In their request, Giovanardi and the other women kindly ask the Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, founded by Giovanni Treccani S.p.A., to eliminate expressly insulting words referring to women, and replace them with expressions representing women in a more modern and respectful way. 

     Margaret Thatcher, the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister, once said that you become what you think. If our thoughts are what we are, we must take care of them, because they will turn into our words, actions, habits, and then our character. By defining women as whores and servants in the dictionary, society’s conception of women actually being these things is perpetuated. Those who work with words, like writers, journalists, and anyone in media have an even greater responsibility to be aware of the words they put into the world. While the request to Trecanni will not put an end to everyday sexism, it can contribute to a healthier vision of women and their role in today's society.