Feb 7, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Groups urge Congress to crack down on AI misuse in elections

Illustration of a campaign button cracked in many pieces.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

Voting rights activists are urging Congress to pass legislation to limit what they call the misuse of artificial intelligence in the November election.

Why it matters: From fake robocalls of President Biden to doctored images on social media and phishing attacks aimed at scamming donors, computer-generated images, audio and video are being used to try to confuse voters.

  • It's already clear that AI will play a significant role this year's elections — from fundraising to misleading but harmless ads such as a video that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' campaign released showing fake fighter jets darting across the sky above DeSantis.
  • More recently, creators have been mischievous — or worse — in posting deepfakes that activists see as harmful, and potential election interference.
  • That's led groups such as Public Citizen and the Brennan Center for Justice to call on Congress and federal agencies to crack down on deepfakes and other ads that intentionally mislead voters.

Zoom in: The groups point to ads such as the fake robocall in New Hampshire last month that impersonated Biden's voice and urged residents not to vote in the state's presidential primary, which Biden won.

  • "It's important that you save your vote for the November election," the fake Biden voice said. "Your vote makes a difference in November, not this Tuesday."
  • New Hampshire investigators traced the calls to Texas-based Life Corp. and an individual named Walter Monk, who was identified as running the company, state Attorney General John Formella's office said in a statement Tuesday.
  • Investigators also said the service provider for many of the calls was Lingo Telecom, another Texas firm, which has now "suspended services" to Life Corp.
  • Formella's office is continuing to investigate the case — as is the Federal Communications Commission.

Driving the news: Public Citizen, a progressive think tank, is urging the Federal Election Commission to ban the use of deepfakes in political ads.

  • The Brennan Center for Justice, a progressive public policy institute, is lobbying lawmakers to pass a plan called the Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Act, which supporters say would make misleading voters a federal crime.
  • We certainly need legislation that instills tougher penalties on people who use AI to deceive voters," said Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a group that tries to boost Black voter turnout.

Zoom out: Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and across the nation have expressed fears about becoming victim of ads in which their images and words are manipulated, said Lawrence Norden, senior director of the Brennan Center for Justice Elections and Government Program.

  • Several members of Congress have said they're worried about AI being used to lure voters into making fraudulent donations to candidates.
  • "These scammers are getting better at tricking seniors and working families into handing over billions of dollars in theft each year," Rep Eric Sorensen (D-Ill.) said in a statement.
  • Sorensen and Rep. Juan Ciscomani (R-Ariz.) introduced legislation last week that would increase federal penalties for using AI to impersonate someone.

The big picture: The Brennan Center and other groups say lawmakers can do only so much to prevent AI-related election interference.

  • They note that AI is being used widely outside the United States — including in efforts to mislead American voters.
  • U.S. restrictions on using AI in political ads are "not going to prevent Russia from doing anything," Norden said.
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