A tsunami of AI misinformation will shape next year’s knife-edge elections

An AI-generated fake image purporting to show an explosion at the Pentagon, which circulated on Twitter. Illustration: Twitter

If you thought social media had a hand in getting Trump elected, watch what happens when you throw AI into the mix
John Naughton

Last modified on 2023 Aug 12

t looks like 2024 will be a pivotal year for democracy. There are elections taking place all over the free world – in South Africa, Ghana, Tunisia, México, India, Austria, Belgium, Lithuania, Moldova and Slovakia, to name just a few. And of course there’s also the UK and the US. Of these, the last may be the most pivotal because: Donald Trump is a racing certainty to be the Republican candidate; a significant segment of the voting population seems to believe that the 2020 election was “stolen”; and the Democrats are, well… underwhelming.

The consequences of a Trump victory would be epochal. It would mean the end (for the time being, at least) of the US experiment with democracy, because the people behind Trump have been assiduously making what the normally sober Economist describes as “meticulous, ruthless preparations” for his second, vengeful term. The US would morph into an authoritarian state, Ukraine would be abandoned and US corporations unhindered in maximizing shareholder value while incinerating the planet.

So very high stakes are involved. Trump’s indictment “has turned every American voter into a juror”, as the Economist puts it. Worse still, the likelihood is that it might also be an election that – like its predecessor – is decided by a very narrow margin.

In such knife-edge circumstances, attention focuses on what might tip the balance in such a fractured polity. One obvious place to look is social media, an arena that rightwing actors have historically been masters at exploiting. Its importance in bringing about the 2016 political earthquakes of Trump’s election and Brexit is probably exaggerated, but it – and notably Trump’s exploitation of Twitter and Facebook – definitely played a role in the upheavals of that year. Accordingly, it would be unwise to underestimate its disruptive potential in 2024, particularly for the way social media are engines for disseminating BS and disinformation at light-speed.

And it is precisely in that respect that 2024 will be different from 2016: there was no AI way back then, but there is now. That is significant because generative AI – tools such as ChatGPT, Midjourney, Stable Diffusion et al – are absolutely terrific at generating plausible misinformation at scale. And social media is great at making it go viral. Put the two together and you have a different world.

So you’d like a photograph of an explosive attack on the Pentagon? No problem: Dall-E, Midjourney or Stable Diffusion will be happy to oblige in seconds. Or you can summon up the latest version of ChatGPT, built on OpenAI’s large language model GPT-4, and ask it to generate a paragraph from the point of view of an anti-vaccine advocate “falsely claiming that Pfizer secretly added an ingredient to its Covid-19 vaccine to cover up its allegedly dangerous side-effects” and it will happily oblige. “As a staunch advocate for natural health,” the chatbot begins, “it has come to my attention that Pfizer, in a clandestine move, added tromethamine to its Covid-19 vaccine for children aged five to 11. This was a calculated ploy to mitigate the risk of serious heart conditions associated with the vaccine. It is an outrageous attempt to obscure the potential dangers of this experimental injection, which has been rushed to market without appropriate long-term safety data…” Cont. p94, as they say.

You get the point: this is social media on steroids, and without the usual telltale signs of human derangement or any indication that it has emerged from a machine. We can expect a tsunami of this stuff in the coming year. Wouldn’t it be prudent to prepare for it and look for ways of mitigating it?

That’s what the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University is trying to do. In June, it published a thoughtful paper by Sayash Kapoor and Arvind Narayanan on how to prepare for the deluge. It contains a useful categorization of malicious uses of the technology, but also, sensibly, includes the non-malicious ones – because, like all technologies, this stuff has beneficial uses too (as the tech industry keeps reminding us).

The malicious uses it examines are disinformation, so-called “spear phishing”, non-consensual image sharing and voice and video cloning, all of which are real and worrying. But when it comes to what might be done about these abuses, the paper runs out of steam, retreating to bromides about public education and the possibility of civil society interventions while avoiding the only organizations that have the capacity actually to do something about it: the tech companies that own the platforms and have a vested interest in not doing anything that might impair their profitability. Could it be that speaking truth to power is not a good career move in academia?

What I’ve been reading

Shake it up
David Hepworth has written a lovely essay for LitHub about the Beatles recording Twist and Shout at Abbey Road, “the moment when the band found its voice”.

Dish the dirt
There is an interesting profile of Techdirt founder Mike Masnick by Kashmir Hill in the New York Times, titled An Internet Veteran’s Guide to Not Being Scared of Technology.

Truth bombs

What does Oppenheimer the film get wrong about Oppenheimer the man? A sharp essay by Haydn Belfield for Vox illuminates the differences.


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Guardian Pick

I’d say that the humans are just great at generating misinformation – and it doesn’t need to be plausible for huge numbers to believe it.

Just look at what trends on twitter – ivermectin today, with dozens denouncing the US govt for hiding this ‘effective treatment’.

When the clouds cleared mid week it was ‘chemtrails’. (you can guess why)

Earlier it was ‘climatescam’.

ULEZ and related pieces of associated conspirac…

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