Jan 24, 2024 - Politics

Washington state's plan to combat election deepfakes

Illustration of a vote button stacked atop pixelated buttons

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

State election officials are urging voters to watch out for "deepfakes" in political ads after a robocall used a fake recording of President Biden's voice to try to discourage people from voting in New Hampshire's presidential primary this week.

Why it matters: Election experts predict bad actors will use artificial intelligence to sway voters this year, including by producing fake media imitating candidates' voices and likenesses.

  • In a news release Monday, Washington Secretary of State Steve Hobbs called the deceptive New Hampshire robocall "just the tip of the iceberg for 2024."

Zoom in: Besides voting for president this fall, Washington voters will choose a senator, 10 House members, more than 100 state legislators and nine statewide elected officials, including a new governor.

State of play: Washington already has a statewide law intended to combat the use of artificially generated images and voices in political ads.

  • But that law, passed by Washington's Legislature last year, doesn't ban the use of AI-generated images in political ads outright.
  • Instead, it specifies that any political ads with "synthetic media" — defined as images or recordings that manipulate reality while imitating a person — must be accompanied by a disclosure.

Of note: Speech is difficult to regulate, with tensions between freedom of expression and combating misinformation, Axios' Ryan Heath reports.

Details: On election ads that use deepfaked video, Washington's new disclosure law will require a line of text saying the video is fake, which must appear for the entire video.

  • The law requires a spoken disclaimer on audio ads at the beginning and end of the deepfaked recording (plus once every two minutes if the recording is long).

Plus: Candidates whose manipulated image or voice is used in a deepfaked ad without the required disclosure can sue to try to block the ad from appearing.

  • They can also sue for damages.

What they're saying: "These false messages will get more polished and harder to tell from real ones," Hobbs said in a written statement.

  • "Voters must remain vigilant and skeptical, and turn to trusted information sources to verify things that just don't seem right."

The big picture: As of November, Washington was one of five states that had passed laws regulating deepfakes in elections, along with California, Texas, Minnesota and Michigan, per the consumer advocacy watchdog group Public Citizen.

What we're watching: How many deepfaked ads appear on airwaves and the internet this year — and whether candidates go to court to try to stop them.

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