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AI is destabilizing ‘the concept of truth itself’ in 2024 election

Last month, former president Donald Trump dismissed an ad on Fox News featuring video of his well-documented public gaffes — including his struggle to pronounce the word “anonymous” in Montana and his visit to the California town of “Pleasure,” a.k.a. Paradise, both in 2018 — claiming the footage was generated by AI.

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“The perverts and losers at the failed and once disbanded Lincoln Project, and others, are using A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) in their Fake television commercials in order to make me look as bad and pathetic as Crooked Joe Biden, not an easy thing to do,” Trump wrote on Truth Social. “FoxNews shouldn’t run these ads.”

The Lincoln Project, a political action committee formed by moderate Republicans to oppose Trump, swiftly denied the claim; the ad featured incidents during Trump’s presidency that were widely covered at the time and witnessed in real life by many independent observers.

Still, AI creates a “liar’s dividend,” said Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California Berkeley who studies digital propaganda and misinformation. “When you actually do catch a police officer or politician saying something awful, they have plausible deniability” in the age of AI.

AI “destabilizes the concept of truth itself,” added Libby Lange, an analyst at the misinformation tracking organization Graphika. “If everything could be fake, and if everyone’s claiming everything is fake or manipulated in some way, there’s really no sense of ground truth. Politically motivated actors, especially, can take whatever interpretation they choose.”

Trump is not alone in seizing this advantage. Around the world, AI is becoming a common scapegoat for politicians trying to fend off damaging allegations.

Late last year, a grainy video surfaced of a ruling-party Taiwanese politician entering a hotel with a woman, indicating he was having an affair. Commentators and other politicians quickly came to his defense, saying the footage was AI-generated, though it remains unclear whether it actually was.

In April, a 26-second voice recording was leaked in which a politician in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu appeared to accuse his own party of illegally amassing $3.6 billion, according to reporting by Rest of World. The politician denied the recording’s veracity, calling it “machine generated”; experts have said they are unsure whether the audio is real or fake.

AI companies have generally said their tools shouldn’t be used in political campaigns now, but enforcement has been spotty. On Friday, OpenAI banned a developer from using its tools after the developer built a bot mimicking long-shot Democratic presidential candidate nominee Dean Phillips. Phillips’s campaign had supported the bot, but after The Washington Post reported on it, OpenAI deemed that it broke rules against use of its tech for campaigns.

AI-related confusion is also swirling beyond politics. Last week, social media users began circulating an audio clip they claimed was a Baltimore County, Md., school principal on a racist tirade against Jewish people and Black students. The union that represents the principal has said the audio is AI-generated.

Several signs do point to that conclusion, including the uniform cadence of the speech and indications of splicing, said Farid, who analyzed the audio. But without knowing where it came from or in what context it was recorded, he said, it’s impossible to say for sure.

These claims hold weight because AI deepfakes are more common now and better at replicating a person’s voice and appearance. Deepfakes regularly go viral on X, Facebook, and other social platforms. Meanwhile, the tools and methods to identify an AI-created piece of media are not keeping up with rapid advances in AI’s ability to generate such content.

Actual fake images of Trump have gone viral multiple times. Early this month, actor Mark Ruffalo posted fake AI images of Trump with teenage girls, claiming the images showed the former president on a private plane owned by convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. Ruffalo later apologized.

Rising concern over AI’s impact on politics and the world economy was a major theme at the conference of world leaders and CEOs in Davos, Switzerland, last week. In her remarks opening the conference, President Viola Amherd of Switzerland called AI-generated propaganda and lies “a real threat” to world stability, “especially today when the rapid development of artificial intelligence contributes to the increasing credibility of such fake news.”

Tech and social media companies say they are looking into creating systems to automatically check and moderate AI-generated content purporting to be real, but have yet to do so.

Some social media giants are increasingly reluctant to weed out false content.

Elon Musk’s transformation of Twitter into the more free-for-all X is the most dramatic case, but other platforms are also changing their approach to monitoring. Meta Platforms Inc. has sought to downplay news and political content on Facebook, Instagram, and its new Threads app. Google’s YouTube has decided that purging falsehoods about the 2020 election restricts too much political speech (Meta has a similar policy).

While platforms still require more transparency for advertisements, organic disinformation that spreads without paid placement is a “fundamental threat to American democracy,” especially as companies reevaluate their moderation practices, said Mark Jablonowski, chief technology officer for Democratic ad-tech firm DSPolitical.

Meanwhile, only experts possess the tech and expertise to analyze a piece of media and determine whether it’s real or fake.

That leaves too few people capable of truth-squadding content that can now be generated with easy-to-use AI tools available to almost anyone.

“You don’t have to be a computer scientist. You don’t have to be able to code,” Farid said. “There’s no barrier to entry anymore.”

Material from Bloomberg News was used in this report.

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