Democracy Amidst the Loss of Public Trust02-11-2024
More than four billion people around the world will be voting this year in elections, making 2024 the year in which more people vote to choose their political leaders than any year in human history. This record-breaking year of democracy is also an inflection point for a specifically liberal form of democracy. A widespread feeling of disempowerment and anger has mobilized mostly right-wing and nationalist populist movements, meaning that this year of democracy may result in the rise of multiple authoritarian and illiberal regimes. And amidst this watershed year of democracy, there is the coming-of-age of a new and potentially volcanic new technology that has the potential to wreak havoc with the effort to maintain an informed and rational public sphere. As John Ellis writes, the age of video and audio deep fake technology threatens to radically undermine the coherence of a trustworthy public sphere.
Welcome to the first US election featuring audio and visual “deep fakes” and the cyber-hacking of U.S. infrastructure for the purpose of destabilizing American democracy.
We’ve not been here before. Bad actors, foreign and domestic, are perfecting the art of AI-enabled deception. There might be audio of former President Obama, for instance, speaking to friends in a crowded restaurant, saying “You don’t really realize how old Biden is until you meet with him privately. It’s like he’s not there.”
That audio will sound exactly like Mr. Obama. The busy restaurant background noise will be actual audio from a busy restaurant. The elements for this hypothetical “deep fake” audio will be stitched together and co-produced by advanced artificial intelligence. You won’t be able to tell the difference between “real” Obama and “deep fake” Obama, because you can’t. The quality of the “forgery” is that good.
If you think these deep fakes can be ring-fenced, and kept separate from the “news” about the 2024 presidential election, think again. Deep fake Obama is perfect for social media. It’s short, it’s intriguing and it’s one-click “share-able.” Indeed, something like it (and others like it) will be shared millions of times on social media throughout the election season. Every day.
It will reach a point, probably in early October, when the first question asked about a social media political “post” will be: “Is that AI or is it real?” If it’s just audio, you and I will not be able to answer the question. The only honest answer will be, “I don’t know.”
Deep fake video is easier to spot. It’s not “perfect” the way deep fake audio is. That does not mean we won’t be flooded with short, deep fake video clips on TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter/X, Threads, Telegram, Discord, and the others. Thousands and thousands of them will make the rounds, some humorous, some crazy, some “serious,” some supposedly “official.” None of them will be "true.”
The net effect of this avalanche of deep fake audio/video will be distrust. Tens of millions of deep fake audio/video posts and “re-shares” will overwhelm any ability we have to sort out what is true and what is not. We don’t have the time. We don’t have the expertise. If we can’t sort it out quickly, we won’t sort it out. We’ll only trust people and sources we already trust.