Apr 8, 2024 - Technology

New effort to "inoculate" U.S. voters against AI misinformation

Illustration of a yard sign that says VOTE glitching and becoming progressively more pixelated

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

A bipartisan coalition with support from Hollywood power players and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's Archewell Foundation is working to prepare U.S. voters for a possible deepfake onslaught as the campaign year goes into high gear.

Why it matters: With federal agencies and social media companies barely talking to each other about AI-driven misinformation threats, "this is a disaster waiting to happen — no one's doing the public inoculation," warned Miles Taylor, chief policy officer of The Future US, which is coordinating the campaign.

  • Taylor is a former DHS chief of staff — and author of a celebrated op-ed critique of the Trump administration from an "anonymous" insider — who wrote a tell-all book.

The big picture: Last September, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the White House, FBI and other federal officials likely violated the First Amendment by encouraging social media companies to crack down on COVID-19 misinformation.

  • The Supreme Court, which is hearing a government appeal of that ruling, is skeptical that officials overstepped — but the case has already significantly reduced the contact between officials and big tech companies, including election-protection coordination.
  • Federal agencies have faced a parallel wave of litigation and pressure from Republicans, led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), to cease efforts to study misinformation on social media around both election and health topics.

What they're saying: "Trump won the presidency on a bad-ass earned media campaign," Taylor told Axios, suggesting his deepfake coalition could achieve free distribution with influencers reaching 75 million Americans.

  • "The government isn't talking to social media companies. Many of the social media companies don't want anything to do with the government — which means novel AI threats could get missed," Taylor told Axios.
  • Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency officials confirmed the lack of contact in a March reporter briefing.

Driving the news: The Future US shared two prototype ads that the group is using to gin up interest among Hollywood screenwriters, ad executives and influencers for what it hopes will be a massive earned media campaign, supplemented by an initial $5 million of paid advertising in swing states.

  • One ad shows a woman in Arizona picking up the phone on Election Day, and hearing a voice on the other end that tells her to stay away from the polls because of threats from militant groups. The AI-generated caller, impersonating a poll worker, holds a "real" conversation with the voter.
  • In another ad, a Florida man is enraged by viewing AI-generated security footage fraudulently depicting ballots being destroyed, and urges his friends to take action.

The AI + Election Security Coalition, operated by The Future US, is backed by figures ranging from former Google X head of experience Tom Chi to NYU AI expert Gary Marcus and former presidential candidate Andrew Yang, along with former members of Congress from both parties.

Reality check: It will take more than $5 million and celebrity stardust to prepare swing state voters for AI fraud, especially when many already distrust mainstream information sources.

Context: Deepfakes are already prominent in foreign election campaigns, with varying degrees of influence.

  • China is targeting elections in both Taiwan and the U.S. with AI-generated disinformation, per the Wall Street Journal.
  • Indian political parties have taken to resurrecting dead former leaders to endorse a new generation of candidates.
  • A Slovakian liberal candidate narrowly lost his country's election after being falsely presented to voters as planning vote-rigging and beer price increases in the last 48 hours of the campaign.

Experts predict both malicious state actors and domestic political operatives will use deepfake technology and other media manipulation to confuse voters during the U.S. election campaign.

  • Oren Etzioni, a former CEO at Allen Institute for AI, is offering free tools to journalists and fact-checkers for spotting AI disinformation through a new nonprofit, TrueMedia.org.

The other side: Google, Meta and OpenAI did not respond to a request for comment.

  • All three have joined a 20-firm coalition pledged to combat deceptive AI election content.

Fun fact: Wondros, the production company led by Jesse Dylan, Bob Dylan's son, produced the ads, Taylor told Axios.

  • Prince Harry and Meghan Markle's Archewell Foundation is also helping brainstorm new content.

What's next: The Future US will launch "satirical and comedic campaigns" later in the spring, per Taylor, focused on five crucial swing states: Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Michigan and Wisconsin.

  • Sub-groups that will be targeted include "high-turnout voters who are not tech-savvy" — code for voters aged 65+ — and those who might be targeted by AI-powered voter suppression efforts.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to say Tom Chi is the former (not current) Google X head of experience.

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