The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A ‘beautiful’ female biker was actually a 50-year-old man using FaceApp. After he confessed, his followers liked him even more.

The middle-aged father’s big reveal sparked a debate over identity in the Internet age: ‘The only thing I’m creating is … my appearance. Everything else is me.’

Yasuo Nakajima takes a selfie in Japan's Ibaraki prefecture earlier this month. Nakajima used the image-transforming app FaceApp to pose as a young female motorcycle enthusiast on social media. (Irwin Wong for The Washington Post)

Soya no Sohi attracted tens of thousands of Twitter followers as a pretty, young motorcycle enthusiast burning up the scenic roadways of northern Japan, posting daily photos as she journeyed across mountains and beaches on her classic Yamaha sport bikes.

Then in March, the social media darling came clean: Soya was actually Yasuo Nakajima, a 50-year-old man who had used the iPhone app FaceApp to transform his face in every shot. The more than 300 selfies he had posted since last summer — the ones with the dewy skin and the perfect smile — were all computer-generated fakes.

His reveal ignited a Japanese media sensation: the “ultimate catfish” who had fooled the Internet into adoring an imaginary woman. Nakajima told a variety show he’d adopted the persona because no one wants to read what a normal middle-aged man posts.

Then something unusual happened: His follower count soared. His fans didn’t voice betrayal or alarm over the year-long fraud; many said they had cared more about his personality than his face. “This beautiful woman only exists within Soya-san,” one Twitter account said, attaching a genderless Japanese title connoting respect. Said another: “I’ve come to like you even more.”

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With a few taps, Nakajima had capitalized on a popular kind of artificial intelligence with a strange power to warp the world. Millions have used such “facial filters” to erase their wrinkles, revamp their hairstyles and "enhance” their appearance in photos — mostly so they could post them on social media, where they could be tagged, analyzed and ranked by shares and likes.

But Nakajima had pushed the technology to its natural conclusion: He hadn’t just refined his face, he’d invented a new one. With it, he had gained the trust and affection of a bunch of strangers who had no clue who he really was. And since his unmasking, he’s been posting more than ever as smiling Soya, carrying on the fantasy.

To Nakajima and his fans, Soya’s fame illustrated a simple truth: that social media is less a reflection of who we are, and more a performance of who we want to be. In a video call with The Washington Post one Saturday night last month from his home in Japan, his first international interview, Nakajima said the charade had helped him express a side of his personality he’d been afraid to show the world.

“The only thing I’m creating is, basically, my appearance. Everything else is me,” he said.

“When you’re young, you tend to be scolded or criticized by older people who say you should do this or you should do that. But at this age, there’s no one around to really scold me,” he added, his low-pitched voice giving way to a slight laugh. “I’m having the best time of my life.”

Nakajima’s story casts a spotlight on the growing tension over identity and authenticity that has flared in the online age: What should we expect from the people we meet on the Internet, where algorithms can turn practically anything into a facade?

It also seemed to herald a darker future where our fundamental senses of reality are under siege: The AI that allows anyone to fabricate a face can also be used to harass women with “deepfake” pornography, invent fraudulent LinkedIn personas and digitally impersonate political enemies.

Nakajima hadn’t needed to write code or orchestrate a dastardly plan to persuade people to follow a mirage. He’d just installed a free app that schoolkids and bored adults around the world use every day for laughs. No law out there would stop him, or anyone, from doing it anywhere else. How many other Soyas are out there, building a following, living a digital lie?

‘This fantasy world’

Nakajima does not fit the mold of a typical Internet catfish. The divorced father of three and former competitive bodybuilder lives alone in Ibaraki prefecture, a rolling expanse of coastal countryside northeast of Tokyo. Where many have converted garages into homes, Nakajima has done the reverse, turning his wood-paneled living room into a parking lot for his Yamahas: a TZR250RS sport bike, a WR250F off-roader and an XT1200Z Super Ténéré touring motorcycle, surrounded by wrenches and sprays.

Nakajima has been riding and fixing up motorcycles since he was a teenager, vanishing on long road trips across the island’s flowering hillsides and waterfront highways. The “Soya no Sohi” name translates to “Soya’s Blue Ice,” a nod to one of Nakajima’s favorite winter rides at Cape Soya, on Japan’s northernmost point: He straps on spiked tires and races along the coast, the wind sweeping away the snow to uncover the ice beneath.

“Motorcycles are like a family member for me,” he said during the Zoom interview, wearing a racing jacket and a large charm necklace he’d gotten from a local market during one of his rides, his long hair pulled back in a ponytail. “I love the freedom. … When I travel, I am out for basically about two weeks to a month, and I don’t decide on a destination. I like to think, 'I’m going to go west this time,’ or ‘I’m going to go north this time,’ and then just depart.”

He had wanted to share his memories, so in 2019 he joined Twitter, uploading photos of picturesque landscapes and mechanical projects. After a few months, he had netted six followers. It all seemed a bit sad.

So last summer, while touring Japan’s Shikoku island, he tried something different. He had seen his children — one in college, the other two in high school — playing with FaceApp, so he tried it, posting a manipulated photo of himself as a young woman with radiant skin, flashing a peace sign with grease-stained gloves. For his Twitter handle, he chose @azusagakuyuki — a mash-up of the names of his kids.

Soya posed at the foggy peak of Mount Nakadake. She relaxed with a burger and a Budweiser at an American-themed restaurant near Nagasaki. She catalogued the full disassembly and rebuilding of a TZR250RS, the same model of sport bike Nakajima had started riding 30 years ago — every screw replaced; every photo run through FaceApp. She even adopted a catchphrase: “Life is once. Play this world.”

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As the photos began receiving hundreds of likes, Soya’s personality and style began to come through. She was relentlessly upbeat. She never sneered or bickered or trolled. She explored small towns, savored scenic vistas, celebrated roadside restaurants’ simple meals. She took pride in the basic things, like cleaning engine parts. And she only hinted at the truth: When one fan told her in October, “It’s great to be young,” Soya replied, “Youth does not mean a certain period of life, but how to hold your heart.”

She seemed, well, happy, and FaceApp had made her that way. Creating the lifelike impostor had taken only a few taps: He changed the “Gender” setting to “Female,” the “Age” setting to “Teen,” and the “Impression” setting — a mix of makeup filters — to a glamorous look the app calls “Hollywood.” Soya pouted and scowled on rare occasions when Nakajima himself felt frustrated. But her baseline expression was an extra-wide smile, activated with a single tap.

The Post's Geoffrey Fowler has five questions you ought to ask about any app or service, including FaceApp, that wants something as personal as your face. (Video: Jonathan Baran, James Cornsilk/The Washington Post)

With thousands now following Soya, Nakajima played her up, referring to himself with feminine pronouns and crafting flowery messages dotted with Kaomojis, the little face expressions most often used by young women.

Nakajima grew his shimmering hair below his shoulders and raided his local convenience store for beauty supplies he thought would make the FaceApp images more convincing: blushes, eyeliners, concealers, shampoos.

Nakajima said he is a “straight ally” on LGBTQ issues and joked that his only romantic interests are his motorcycles. He had never received any money or gifts, and never asked for any. But he said he began to gain a new understanding of the dreck that women endure on the Internet, after months of unwanted private messages from men seeking to join Soya on her next ride.

Soya never posted anything risque or sexualized: She opted for bulky gloves and racing jackets, rarely showing any skin. She loved camping, comic books and beer, and was quick to respond to fans with pleasantries and thanks. She appeared almost entirely alone, though she never seemed sad, always beaming that perfect smile.

“When I compare how I feel when I started to tweet as a woman and now, I do feel that I’m gradually gravitating toward this persona … this fantasy world that I created,” Nakajima said. “When I see photos of what I tweeted, I feel like, ‘Oh. That’s me.’ ”

The identity playground

The sensation Nakajima was feeling is so common that there’s a term for it: the Proteus effect, named for the shape-shifting Greek god. Stanford University researchers first coined it in 2007 to describe how people inhabiting the body of a digital avatar began to act the part: People made to appear taller in virtual-reality simulations acted more assertively, even after the experience ended. Prettier characters began to flirt.

What is it about online disguises? Why are they so good at bending people’s sense of self-perception? There’s clearly a “social reinforcement” effect: People like the attention and encouragement they get from playing make-believe. But the rise of facial filters suggests there’s something deeper, too — that, as University of North Carolina social media researcher Alice Marwick said, they tap into this “very human impulse to play with identity and pretend to be someone you’re not.”

Users in the Internet’s early days rarely had any presumptions of authenticity, said Melanie C. Green, a University of Buffalo professor who studies technology and social trust. Most people assumed everyone else was playing a character clearly distinguished from their real life.

Few people used real names or profile photos — most chats were text-based anyway — and experimenting with one’s self-image was seen as a low-stakes way to try on a new life and have some fun.

“This identity play was considered one of the huge advantages of being online,” Green said. “You could switch your gender and try on all of these different personas. It was a playground for people to explore.”

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This idea led feminists in the 1990s to argue that the Web might smash down gender barriers, Marwick said: If everyone could play as another gender, they would see just how constructed and arbitrary it really was, and how fluid it could be.

In 1998, researchers surveying how gay people and others with “stigmatized social identities” used the Internet said many saw online anonymity as a way to act like themselves without fear of offline consequences. Respondents who came out to virtual strangers said the process gave them the courage to come out in real life.

It wasn’t until the rise of giant social networks like Facebook — which used real identities to, among other things, supercharge targeted advertising — that this big game of pretend gained an air of duplicity. Spaces for playful performance shrank, and the biggest Internet watering holes began demanding proof of authenticity as a way to block out malicious intent.

The Web’s big shift from text to visuals — the rise of photo-sharing apps, live streams and video calls — seemed at first to make that unspoken rule of real identities concrete. It seemed too difficult to fake one’s appearance when everyone’s face was on constant display.

Now, researchers argue, advances in image-editing artificial intelligence have done for the modern Internet what online pseudonyms did for the world’s first chat rooms. Facial filters have allowed anyone to mold themselves into the character they want to play.

Some of Instagram’s most popular influencers now rely on apps such as Facetune to digitally airbrush their looks to the point of fantasy. A new wave of virtual YouTubers, known as VTubers, have gained massive audiences by live-streaming themselves as computerized avatars: One of the most popular, CodeMiko, wears a $12,000 full-body motion-capture suit and has been watched a total of more than 3 million hours.

But researchers fear these augmented reality tools could end up distorting the beauty standards and expectations of actual reality. The backlash has inspired online groups, like Instagram’s @celebface and Reddit’s r/InstagramReality, to craft side-by-side comparisons of influencers’ digitally perfected fakes with their messier real-world counterparts.

Some political and tech theorists worry this new world of synthetic media threatens to detonate our concept of truth, eroding our shared experiences and infusing every online relationship with suspicion and self-doubt.

Dannagal Young, a University of Delaware associate professor studying online communication, understands that concern: Deceptive political memes, conspiracy theories, anti-vaccine hoaxes and other scams have torn the fabric of our democracy, culture and public health.

But she also thinks about her kids, who assume “that everything online is fabricated,” and wonders whether the rules of online identity require a bit more nuance — and whether that generational shift is already underway.

“Bots pretending to be people, automated representations of humanity — that, they perceive as exploitative,” she said. “But if it’s just someone engaging in identity experimentation, they’re like: ‘Yeah, that’s what we’re all doing.' ”

To their generation, “authenticity is not about: ‘Does your profile picture match your real face?’ Authenticity is: ‘Is your voice your voice?’ ” she added. “Their feeling is: ‘The ideas are mine. The voice is mine. The content is mine. I’m just looking for you to receive it without all the assumptions and baggage that comes with it.’ That’s the essence of a person’s identity. That’s who they really are.”

‘The person you want to be’

In February, Soya’s following began to plateau. Nakajima had gained thousands of fans, but all the scenic rides and bike projects weren’t driving his follower number any higher. So he began to push the boundaries: sultry black-and-white portraits, a bare neckline, his backside in some Levi’s jeans.

A longtime fitness buff, Nakajima said he saw nothing wrong with showing off his physique: He had worked hard on that body, he said with a laugh. Some of his followers had begun to ask questions about Soya’s real gender anyway, after several fans noted Nakajima’s arm in one picture seemed hairier than they expected. Others had grown suspicious of his emoticon use: one wrote that anyone “who uses the ‘!?’ emoji is totally a middle-aged man.”

Four days after the Levi’s photo, Nakajima made a decision: It was time “I showed my true self,” he said. More and more people kept following him, sending messages to Soya; it all began feeling too much to handle. So he took a photo of his motorcycle and posted it without FaceApp, his unaltered face visible in the handlebar mirrors.

He was anxious about how people might react: Would neighbors confront him or his kids? But many of his fans didn’t skip a beat, saying they were here for him — or, at least, the fantasy. He “seems to be genuinely enjoying himself. I like it,” one account said. Said another: “It’s a fun world if you just decide to believe that beautiful women like these exist.”

“They said, ‘It’s okay. It doesn’t really matter what gender you are,’ ” Nakajima said. “ ‘We just support you because we like your tweets, because you’re interesting.’ ” His following continued to grow.

When producers for a Japanese variety show contacted him, he walked them through how he’d done it: his lighting setup, his makeup routine, the button he’d press for “Hollywood” magic. “My desire to make the photos as pretty as possible keeps growing,” he told them. “I’m getting carried away.” He promoted the appearance with a photo of Soya smiling at the beach; it was liked more than 8,000 times.

In the days after, Nakajima rolled out new experiments: He modified photos of himself to look like a younger man, smiling at lunch or with a smoldering stare. He tweeted side-by-side versions of himself as a woman and a man. And he posted more personal images, including pictures from a 2018 bodybuilding competition and a family photo of his son and youngest daughter, hiking the Japanese Alps.

The female Soya has lived on in Twitter posts, raving about botanical hair treatments, chewing a leaf, flashing a smile while scooping up sludge. She has even inspired a wave of copycats. But one of Nakajima’s most popular recent photos is totally untouched: him standing in front of the Shikoku mountains, his arms stretched to the sky. Its caption: “Life is once, play this world.”

Nakajima's biker buddies love it, said Tet Wada, an actor who met him two years ago on a motorcycle trip to Japan's Mount Tsurugi.

"Not many Japanese people would easily approach him because of his hard look, but he is actually a very gentle and knowledgeable person," Wada said in an Instagram chat. "He knows all kinds of flowers, insects and their characteristics."

Nakajima’s son and oldest daughter said they were surprised at first by the FaceApp act — who is that woman, his son wondered — but have since embraced the Soya persona because their dad enjoys it so much, according to texts they sent over the messaging service Line.

His son, who's in high school, said he's "proud of him" and that his friends read the tweets: "Everyone tells me I have a really interesting dad."

“He seems to be having fun,” said his college-aged daughter. Her friends have “had a really good laugh.”

But wasn’t this all just a big con? Nakajima had tricked people with a “cool girl” stereotype to boost his Twitter numbers. He hadn’t elevated the role of women in motorcycling; if anything, he’d supplanted them. And the character he’d created was paper-thin: Soya had no internal complexity outside of what Nakajima had projected, just that eternally superimposed smile.

Perhaps he should have accepted his irrelevance and faded into the digital sunset, sharing his life for few to see. But some of Soya’s followers have said they never felt deceived: It was Nakajima — his enthusiasm, his attitude about life — they’d been charmed by all along. “His personality,” as one Twitter follower said, “shined through.”

In Nakajima’s mind, he’d used the tools of a superficial medium to craft genuine connections. He had not felt real until he had become noticed for being fake.

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He hopes his bigger social media following will impress his children, saying, “I want to live in a way that makes them think, ‘Oh, Dad is cool.' ” But he also hopes he has given them the encouragement to make themselves into whatever or whoever they want.

“In childhood, a lot of us were told, ‘As a boy, you should do this. As a girl, you should do this.’ And I really dislike that,” he said. “Unless you start, you’ll come to regret it. People will say, ‘I’ll do this once things settle down or once everything is in place.’ But by the time everything is in place, your life will end.”

Nakajima said he doesn’t know how long he’ll keep Soya alive. But he said he’s grateful for the way she helped him feel: carefree, adventurous, seen.

After a Twitter fan compared him to Mary Ann Evans, the English novelist known by the male pen name George Eliot, Nakajima adapted a quote falsely attributed to her as a new kind of life motto: “It’s never too late to be the person you want to be.”