Zoom dysmorphia is following us into the real world / Humans + Tech - Issue #96

+ Kenya's disinformation-for-hire industry + People are hiring out their faces to become deepfake-style marketing clones + Other interesting articles from around the web


The pandemic has created many peripheral issues for humans. “Zoom Dysmorphia” is one of them. Find out more below.

Zoom dysmorphia is following us into the real world

After the first lockdowns were lifted last year, Shadi Kourosh, a dermatologist, noticed a noticeable increase in requests for appearance-related issues. Her experience was corroborated by others in her field, along with related areas like plastic surgery. Most of the patients cited video-conferencing as the reason they were seeking treatment [Amit Katwala, WIRED].

In the age of Zoom, people became inordinately preoccupied with sagging skin around their neck and jowls; with the size and shape of their nose; with the pallor of their skin. They wanted cosmetic interventions, ranging from Botox and fillers to face-lifts and nose jobs. Kourosh and colleagues surveyed doctors and surgeons, examining the question of whether video-conferencing during the pandemic was a potential contributor to body dysmorphic disorder. They called it ‘Zoom dysmorphia’.

Cameras on our devices distort our faces making our noses look more prominent and our eyes smaller. This distortion affects people’s self-image when they are constantly staring at their image on a video call.

We’re also used to seeing our own reflection when our faces are relaxed – the concentrated frown (or bored expression) you wear in a Zoom meeting jars with the image of yourself you’re used to seeing in the mirror. “Changes in self-perception and anxiety as a result of constant video-conferencing may lead to unnecessary cosmetic procedures, especially in young adults who have had increased exposure to online platforms including videoconferencing, social media, and filters throughout the pandemic,” write Kourosh, Channi Silence and other colleagues.

Kourosh says the best way to fight this is through awareness. When people find out that they are not alone in feeling unhappy with their appearance on video calls, it helps tremendously.

People are hiring out their faces to become deepfake-style marketing clones

Several companies are now creating AI characters using real human faces and selling these characters to clients who want to make videos and marketing material quickly. Human actors are no longer needed to act out the scripts. People are selling their faces to these companies to be used as these AI characters [Will Douglas Heaven, MIT Technology Review].

Anyone can apply to become a character. Like a modeling agency, Hour One filters through applicants, selecting those it wants on its books. The company is aiming for a broad sample of characters that reflect the ages, genders, and racial backgrounds of people in the real world, says Monbiot. (Currently, around 80% of its characters are under 50 years old, 70% are female, and 25% are white.) 

To create a character, Hour One uses a high-resolution 4K camera to film a person talking and making different facial expressions in front of a green screen. And that’s it for the human part of the performance. Plugging the resulting data into AI software that works in a similar way to deepfake tech, Hour One can generate an endless amount of footage of that person saying whatever it wants, in any language.

The fact that AI can replace this type of acting work so easily does not bode well for actors. Eventually, as deepfake technology matures further, coupled with hyperrealistic computer graphics, AI characters may take on more complicated acting gigs, reducing the need for human actors even further, not to forget the job losses for all supporting staff such as stuntmen, makeup artists, etc.

Kenya’s “disinformation-for-hire” industry

Researchers from the Mozilla Foundation in Nairobi started noticing strange hashtags on Twitter undermining the court and boosting BBI. BBI (Building Bridges Initiative) is a set of constitutional reforms proposed by the president that the High Court was reviewing at the time [Vittoria Elliott, Rest of World].

They later uncovered thousands of accounts promoting pro-BBI content and attacking the country’s judiciary and civil society actors. The findings were detailed in a new report released Thursday, which sheds light on a growing industry for paid political propaganda on social media.  

Mozilla researchers interviewed people who participated in the BBI disinformation campaign, who reported being paid roughly $10 to $15 a day to tweet hashtags via the mobile wallet app M-Pesa. The hired trolls claimed not to know where the money was coming from.


While the BBI campaign sought only to influence Kenyan politics, it’s part of a burgeoning “disinformation-for-hire” industry around the world, in which paid actors, often connected to political figures, are funneled cash to spread propaganda and intimidate opponents on social media. The financial structures behind these schemes are often opaque. “The money passes through many hands before it eventually gets to the person who actually goes ahead to publish [the content],” said Madung. “They don’t know exactly who they are working for, but they know which side they’re on.”

Researchers warn that disinformation campaigns start long before elections. Crucially, platforms like Twitter only recognise disinformation through western contexts as many of their tools for detection are automated. Therefore many information campaigns in other parts of the world go undetected.

Other interesting articles from around the web

👩‍⚕️ Is it finally Remote Patient Monitoring’s moment? [Christina Farr, Second Opinion]

Remote Patient Monitoring (RPM) got a boost during Covid, and it seems to be here to stay. Christina Farr interviewed Jami Doucette, President of Premise Health, and Myoung Cha, Chief Strategy Officer of Carbon Health, to get their views on RPM. Here’s one question from the interview.

CF: What are the bigger trends that make RPM a solid bet?

MC: “Stepping back, there are some longer-term macro trends that are bringing RPM to the fore -- hardware devices that are getting cheaper and easier to use, lower-cost internet connectivity allowing the data to stream into the EMR, sensor-based clinical pathways getting developed and validated to drive better outcomes for patients, and reimbursement for RPM maturing and becoming more mainstream. Beyond these trends, the most important consideration is that patients really value it. A friend told me recently that he had experienced massive headaches due to what he believed to be variations in his blood pressure, and his previous physician dismissed his concerns and said that his in-clinic blood pressure looked normal and his medications looked like they were working just fine. ‘It’s in your head’, he was told. Needless to say, he switched doctors and got prescribed an RPM solution with a bluetooth-connected blood pressure cuff and after just a few months of measuring his blood pressure at home and discussing the data with his doctor, he was able to find a different medication that kept his blood pressure more stable and didn’t cause the headaches.”

🎮 Gaming device designed to help stroke patients regain arm strength [Ben Coxworth, New Atlas]

Repetitive exercises are necessary for stroke victims to regain strength in their limbs. A team at Imperial College London has created a rehabilitation tool called GripAble to help them do so while playing games. Furthermore, GripAble allows patients to do the exercises in the comfort of their homes, by themselves, rather than under the supervision of a therapist.

As its name implies, the GripAble requires users to squeeze and release its hand grip in order to control gameplay. That said, they're also called upon to turn and lift the tool, adding to the range of arm-strengthening exercises. The device is reportedly capable of detecting even very slight muscle movements, and vibrates to let users know that it's done so.


In a 2019 clinical trial involving 30 stroke patients with upper limb weakness, it was found that unsupervised use of the GripAble allowed them to perform an average of 104 arm-strengthening repetitions per day. By contrast, conventional therapy alone only allowed them to do an average of 15.

👩‍🔬 Machine learning algorithm revolutionises how scientists study behaviour [Caroline Sheedy, Carnegie Mellon University]

Eric Yttri and Alex Hsu of Carnegie Mellon University have developed an unsupervised machine learning algorithm called B-SOiD that makes studying behaviour much more accurate. B-SOiD can help doctors study disease progression through behaviour analysis.

Collaborators have even begun to use B-SOiD to study human movement in Parkinson's disease. 

"We are beginning to see if this can be used as part of an objective test by a doctor to show how far a patient's disease has progressed. The hope is that a patient anywhere in the world would be diagnosed with one standardized metric," Yttri said. 

This is a breakthrough in how scientists can study natural behavior and how it changes rather than the overly simplistic or subjective measures that predominate neuroscience and ethology.

Quote of the week

“Changes in self-perception and anxiety as a result of constant video-conferencing may lead to unnecessary cosmetic procedures, especially in young adults who have had increased exposure to online platforms including videoconferencing, social media, and filters throughout the pandemic.”

—Shadi Kourosh, Channi Silence and other colleagues, from the article “Zoom dysmorphia is following us into the real world” [WIRED]

I wish you a brilliant day ahead :)