Cheerleader’s mom charged in deepfake plot against rival teens

Raffaela Spone, 50, is shown in this handout photo. Bucks County Sheriff's Office

A Pennsylvania mom faces multiple charges for allegedly making fake photos and videos of teen girls on her daughter’s cheerleading squad, including nude content, in an apparent attempt to get them booted from the team.

Raffaela Spone, 50, of Chalfont, Pa., faces three misdemeanour counts of cyber harassment of a child and three counts of harassment, according to the Bucks County District Attorney’s Office.

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Authorities say Spone doctored several photos to smear and embarrass three of her daughter’s rivals on the Victory Vipers cheerleading squad. The photos were taken from the victims’ social media and been altered to make it look like they were drinking, smoking and posing nude, authorities say.

Spone is also accused of sending doctored photos and videos to the girls and suggesting that they kill themselves. She also allegedly sent the manipulated content to parents and the owners of the gym where they practiced.

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Raffaela Spone, 50, is shown in this handout photo. Bucks County Sheriff's Office

“The suspect is alleged to have taken a real picture and edited it through some photoshopping app to make it look like this teenaged girl had no clothes on to appear nude, when in reality that picture was a screengrab from the teenager’s social media in which she had a bathing suit on,” said Bucks County District Attorney Matt Weintraub.

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Authorities referred to some of the material as “deepfakes,” an AI-assisted form of digital manipulation that grafts one person’s face onto another person’s body within a video.

Deepfake technology has been used to edit celebrity faces into pornography, to play jokes and to fabricate statements by well-known world leaders, including former U.S. presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama.

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“This technology is not only very prevalent, but easy to use,” Weintraub told The New York Times. “This is something your neighbour down the street can use, and that’s very scary.”

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Alleged victim Madi Hime, 17, told WPVI-TV that she and Spone’s daughter recently had a falling out. She says an anonymous person has been texting her nasty messages for months in the wake of that split, and that the person has been telling her she has no friends and that she should kill herself.

“I do get hate comments, nothing to this extreme, but I was really upset,” said Hime. “I was like, ‘Who says this to someone? Who thinks it’s OK?’ It made me more mad than upset.”

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Hime says she was targeted by a deepfake video that makes it look like she was vaping.

“I just knew it wasn’t real because I don’t do that,” she said.

The girl’s mother, Jennifer Hine, says she moved her to an out-of-state gym last August, about one month after the nasty texts and photos started.

Authorities searched Spone’s home on two occasions last December, the Times reports. They seized several devices, including cellphones, during the searches.

She was arrested and charged last week, then released on the condition that she appear at a preliminary hearing on Mar. 30, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. The affidavit of probable cause did not include any indication that Spone’s daughter knew about the plot.

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Spone’s lawyer, Robert Birch, said he can’t comment because he said the district attorney hasn’t presented any evidence.

“She has absolutely denied what they’re charging her with and because of the fact that this has hit the press, she has received death threats. She has had to go to the police herself, they have a report. Her life has been turned upside down,” Birch told WPVI-TV.

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The Victory Vipers cheerleading squad says it has a “very strict anti-bullying policy” and that it’s cooperating with police.

It also said that “all athletes involved are no longer part” of its program.

With files from The Associated Press

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