Deepfake democracy: Here’s how modern elections could be decided by fake news

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Alexander Puutio, PhD Researcher at the University of Turku, Founding Curator of the New York III Global Shapers Hub & David Timis, Scholar at College of Europe, Outgoing Curator at Brussels Global Shapers Hub

  • The emerging threat of deepfakes could have an unprecedented impact on this election cycle, raising serious questions about the integrity of democratic elections, policy-making and our society at large.
  • A new ethical agenda for AI in political advertising and content on online platforms is required. Given the cross-border nature of the problem, the agenda must be backed by global consensus and action.
  • Communities and individuals can also take action directly by setting higher standards for how to create and interact with political content online.

In a few months the United States will elect its 46th President. While some worry about whether campaigning and casting votes can be done safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, another question is just as critical: how many votes will result via the manipulative influence of artificial intelligence?

Specifically, the emerging threat of deepfakes could have an unprecedented impact on this election cycle, raising serious questions about the integrity of elections, policy-making and our democratic society at large.

Understanding deepfakes

AI-powered deepfakes have the potential to bring troubling consequences for the US 2020 elections.

The technology that began as little more than a giggle-inducing gimmick for making homebrew mash-up videos has recently been supercharged by advances in AI.

Today, open sourced software like DeepFaceLab and Faceswap allow virtually anyone with time and access to cloud computing to deploy sophisticated machine learning processes and graphical rendering without any prior development.

More worryingly, the technology itself is improving at such a rapid pace where experts predict that deepfakes may soon be indistinguishable from real videos. The staggering results that AI can create today can be attributed to herculean leaps in a subfield called Generative Adversarial Networks. This technology enables neural networks to make the jump from mere perception to creation.

As one can expect with viral technology, the number of deepfake videos is growing exponentially as the continuing democratization of AI and cloud-computing make the underlying processes more and more accessible.

A new infodemic?

As we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, the contagious spread of misinformation rarely requires more than a semblance of authority accompanying the message, no matter how pernicious or objectively unsafe the content may be to the audience.

Given how easily deepfakes can combine fake narratives and information with fabricated sources of authority, they have an unprecedented potential to mislead, misinform and manipulate, giving ‘you won’t believe your eyes’ a wholly new meaning.

In fact, according to a recent report published by The Brookings Institute, deepfakes are well on their way to not only distort the democratic discourse but also to erode trust in public institutions at large.

How can deepfakes become electoral weapons?

How exactly could deepfakes be weaponized in an election? To begin with, malicious actors could forge evidence to fuel false accusation and fake narratives. For example, by introducing subtle changes to how a candidate delivers an otherwise authentic speech could be used to put character, fitness and mental health into question without most viewers knowing any better.

Deepfakes could also be used to create entirely new fictitious content, including controversial or hateful statements with the intention of playing upon political divisions, or even inciting violence.

Perhaps not surprisingly, deepfakes have already been leveraged in other countries to destabilize governments and political processes.

  • In Gabon, the military launched an ultimately unsuccessful coup after the release of an apparently fake video of leader Ali Bongo suggested that the President was no longer healthy enough to hold office.
  • In Malaysia, a video purporting to show the Economic Affairs Minister having sex has generated a considerable debate over whether the video was faked or not, which caused reputational damage for the Minister.
  • In Belgium, a political group released a deepfake of the Belgian Prime Minister giving a speech that linked the COVID-19 outbreak to environmental damage and called for drastic action on climate change.

The truth will out

As of today, we are woefully ill-equipped to deal with deepfakes.

According to the Pew Research Center, almost two-thirds of the US population say that fake content creates a great deal of confusion about the political reality. What is worse, even our best efforts to correct and fact check fake content could ultimately serve to only strengthen the spread of faked narrative instead.

For AI and democracy to coexist, we must urgently secure a common understanding of what is true and create a shared environment for facts from which our diverging opinions can safely emerge.

What is most desperately needed is a new ethical agenda for AI in political advertising and content on online platforms. Given the cross-border nature of the problem, the agenda must be backed by global consensus and action.

Initiatives like the World Economic Forum’s Responsible Use of Technology, which bring tech executives together to discuss the ethical use of their platforms, are a strong start.

On the more local level, legislatures have started to follow California’s initiative to ban deepfakes during elections and even Facebook has joined the fight with its own ban on certain forms of manipulated content and a challenge to create technologies to spot them.

The future: fact or fiction?

Still, more can be done.

We do not necessarily need a technology or regulatory paradigm change in order to disarm deepfakes. Instead, communities and individuals can also take action directly by setting higher standards for how we create and interact with political content online ourselves.

In fact, unless voters themselves stand up for facts and truth in online discourse, it will be all but impossible to drive meaningful change, simply because of the inherent subjectivity of online platforms that puts reality at a disadvantage.

Whether we want it or not deepfakes are here to stay. But November 2020 could mark the moment we take a collective stand against the threats AI poses before it’s too late.

the sting Milestone

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

Antitrust: Commission publishes study on the application of Interchange Fees Regulation

8 fascinating and fearsome frontiers of science you should know about

Security Union: political agreement on strengthened Schengen Information System

Right-wing “sovranism” harm national identity

We can save the Earth. Here’s how

Thursday’s Daily Brief: Women in peacekeeping, the arrest of Sudan’s leader, updates on Libya, Nigeria and Syria

Protecting whistle-blowers: new EU-wide rules approved

The Chinese retail revolution is heading west

The Czech economy is thriving but boosting skills and productivity and transitioning to a low-carbon productive model is vital to sustainable and inclusive growth

Safer roads: More life-saving technology to be mandatory in vehicles

Crimea: The last bloodless secession of a Ukraine region?

Education critical to ensure future of forests, and reverse their destruction

These refugee children have danced in the snow for the first time

They have more than 30 words for “apple core”, and other things you didn’t know about Switzerland

COP24: Huge untapped potential in greener construction, says UN environment agency

New migration pact highlights key role of business in protecting migrants, say UN experts

Trump wants to implicate China in US attacks against global order

After Rio Grande tragedy, UNICEF chief highlights ‘dire’ detention centres on US-Mexico border

Parliament boosts consumer rights online and offline

Humanitarian migration falls while labour and family migration rises

Cocaine and opium production worldwide hit ‘absolute record highs’ – major threat to public health says UN study

Council’s position on Visa Directive a step back for young people’s mobility

A Sting Exclusive: “Cybersecurity: Why consumer products must be looked at urgently”, by BEUC’s Deputy Director General

‘Dire consequences’ for a million children in the Middle East, North Africa, as funding dwindles

What changes in the EU as from today

Coronavirus (COVID-19) update: Busting the myth by looking at the facts

MWC 2016 LIVE: Stripe gives payments leg-up to startups in emerging markets

Strengthening the rule of law through increased awareness, an annual monitoring cycle and more effective enforcement

UNICEF backpacks used as a haunting symbol to call for greater protection of children living in conflict

Lagarde: Keep feeding the banks cut down wages and food subsidies

Thousands of Belgian schoolchildren have gone on strike to protest climate change

‘Working night and day’, UN health agency seeks to prevent global coronavirus crisis

EU Council agrees to reform the system for motor vehicles but with “restricted” power for the Commission

Single Market Scoreboard 2020: Member States need to do more to ensure the good functioning of the EU Single Market*

Child victims of DRC Ebola outbreak need ‘special attention and care’: UNICEF

Finally an answer to the hottest question of European youth today: How to make sure Juncker’s Investment Plan works for youth

The multidisciplinary team facing the multidrug resistant form of Tuberculosis in the state of Amazonas (Brazil)

Adolescent health has been overlooked for too long

Worldwide terror attacks have fallen for the third year in a row

Ukraine: turning challenges into opportunities

Conditions deteriorating alarmingly in Yemen, warns senior UN official

Why is the Strait of Hormuz so important?

5 times people predicted the future and got it really wrong

Failure to open accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia is a mistake

The impact of COVID-19 on the life of the elderly

In the future of work it’s jobs, not people, that will become redundant

Last-chance Commission: Why Juncker promised investments of €300 billion?

Long-term EU budget: The Union’s ambitions must be matched with sufficient reliable funding

The 3 traps when it comes to blockchain and business – and how to avoid them

European Commission reacts to the US restrictions on steel and aluminium affecting the EU

Newly licensed vaccine, ‘milestone in the fight’ against Ebola in Africa, UN health agency

Internet Forum: Prioritize technologies most needed for sustainable development

Strict alcohol laws which cut intake more than 40 per cent in Russia, linked to historically high life expectancy

The recipe for creativity involves a lot of ideas, and a short break

Investigate alleged pushbacks of asylum-seekers at the Greek-Turkish border, MEPs demand

The Venezuelan exodus to Roraima and its repercussions

Fairness in the food supply chain: Commission proposes to increase price transparency

Prospect of a nuclear war ‘higher than it has been in generations’, warns UN

Colombia’s former president says COVID-19 shows the importance of listening to indigenous peoples on how we treat the planet

Trade defence report: restoring the level playing field for European producers

More Stings?


Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s