Scroll through the livestreaming videos at 4 a.m. on Taobao, China’s most popular e-commerce platform, and you’ll find it weirdly busy. While most people are fast asleep, there are still many diligent streamers presenting products to the cameras and offering discounts in the wee hours.
But if you take a closer look, you may notice that many of these livestream influencers seem slightly robotic. The movement of their lips largely matches what they are saying, but there are always moments when it looks unnatural.
These streamers are not real: they are AI-generated clones of the real streamers. As technologies that create realistic avatars, voices, and movements get more sophisticated and affordable, the popularity of these deepfakes has exploded across China’s e-commerce streaming platforms.
Today, livestreaming is the dominant marketing channel for traditional and digital brands in China. Influencers on Taobao, Douyin, Kuaishou, or other platforms can broker massive deals in a few hours. The top names can sell more than a billion dollars’ worth of goods in one night and gain royalty status just like big movie stars. But at the same time, training livestream hosts, retaining them, and figuring out the technical details of broadcasting comes with a significant cost for smaller brands. It’s much cheaper to automate the job.
Since 2022, a swarm of Chinese startups and major tech companies have been offering the service of creating deepfake avatars for e-commerce livestreaming. With just a few minutes of sample video and $1,000 in costs, brands can clone a human streamer to work 24/7.
From deepfake to e-commerce
Synthetic media have been making headlines since the late 2010s, particularly when a Reddit user named “deepfake” swapped faces into pornography. Since then, the technology has evolved, but the idea is the same: with some technical tools, faces can be generated or manipulated to look like specific real humans and do things that the actual human has never done.
The technology has mostly been known for its problematic use in revenge porn, identity scams, and political misinformation. While there have been attempts to commercialize it in more innocuous ways, it has always remained a novelty. But now, C...