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A flood of misinformation

by By STEVEN ROBERTS
| July 5, 2024 7:00 AM

In Moldova, a false video implied that a pro-Western president actually favored Russia. In Bangladesh, a conservative Muslim country, a female lawmaker was portrayed wearing a bikini. In Slovakia, a doctored audio tape made it seem that an anti-Moscow candidate wanted to double the price of beer.

No fabricated videos have surfaced — yet — of Joe Biden boasting a bikini bod or boosting beer prices. But this year’s presidential contest is already drenched in a flood of disinformation, and the problem is likely to get much worse.

As those foreign examples illustrate, “deepfakes” pose a serious threat. These are false ideas and images created by AI, or artificial intelligence. “Artificial intelligence is supercharging the threat of election disinformation worldwide, making it easy for anyone with a smartphone and a devious imagination to create fake — but convincing — content aimed at fooling voters,” reports The Associated Press.

On Capitol Hill, a Senate committee has approved three bills with bipartisan backing that would try to impose some ground rules for the use of AI in campaign ads, including strict requirements for transparency.

In supporting the legislation, Senate leader Chuck Schumer warned: “AI has the potential to jaundice or even totally discredit our election systems. If deepfakes are everywhere and no one believes the results of the elections, woe is our democracy.”

Deepfakes are not the only threat to election integrity. There are also “cheap fakes”: real sounds and images that are edited to distort their true meaning. This happened during Biden’s recent trip to Europe, where the Republican National Committee pumped out carefully manipulated video clips of the president to make him look doddering, even demented.

Fact-checkers at the Washington Post have labeled the Republican propaganda “especially pernicious ... because it’s intended to create a false narrative that doesn’t reflect the event as it occurred.” But the GOP effort could not have succeeded without the help of right-wing media outlets, which eagerly circulated the doctored videos, and supporters of Donald Trump who shared them widely on social media.

Mainstream platforms like Facebook and Instagram talk a good game about not spreading election-related falsehoods, but they are in fact co-conspirators, cutting way back on their own teams of fact-checkers and profiting from the traffic generated by the cheap fakes.

“The persistent nature of the misleading videos illustrates how major tech platforms and partisan media are playing off each other in the 2024 election cycle, keeping viral stories in people’s feeds after they’ve been proven to be misleading or even false,” reports NBC.

“In a familiar playbook,” the network explains, “hyperpartisan outlets will continually push a piece of misleading information on their platforms and on social media, causing motivated followers who are primed to believe the outlets to amplify it further. That inundates tech platforms, which are unwilling or unable to correct the record quickly enough. The bad information then continues to outpace efforts to fact-check it.”

Bad information is not just generated by Republican operatives and their allies. Moscow has meddled in previous elections, trying to help Trump, and they are at it again. According to secret Kremlin documents obtained by the Washington Post: “Russia is seeking to subvert Western support for Ukraine and disrupt the domestic politics of the United States and European countries, through propaganda campaigns supporting isolationist and extremist policies.”

Some senior Republicans are deeply alarmed that those “isolationist and extremist” ideas are being parroted by members of their own party. Rep. Michael McCaul, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned on CNN, “Russian propaganda has made its way into the United States, unfortunately, and it’s infected a good chunk of my party’s base.”

So, what can be done to contain this tide of disinformation? There are no easy answers. Mainstream journalists have a growing responsibility to investigate and document cheap fakes and deepfakes. Social media platforms have a responsibility, as well, to place warning labels on falsehoods, even if it costs them customers.

Congress should pass the bipartisan measures that would enhance transparency and help voters and election officials understand how they are being manipulated. And voters — especially swing voters in swing states — need to educate themselves and make their choices based on facts -- not fiction.

But the torrent shows few signs of abating. “People are constantly coming up with new ways to try (to) break the systems,” Natasha Crampton, a Microsoft executive working on AI, told Politico. “I’m terrified,” admitted Oren Etzioni, a prominent AI researcher, in the Times. “There is a very good chance we are going to see a tsunami of misinformation.”

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University.