A.I. and deepfakes could damage democracy as misinformation spreads faster

Earlier this month, a Michigan lawmaker sought to show just how effective misinformation is. It cost $5 and took a total of 10 minutes.

"Hi representative Tsernoglou, it’s your buddy Joe. I really like your bill that requires disclaimers on political ads that use artificial intelligence. No more malarkey. As my dad used to say: ‘Joey, you can’t believe everything you hear.’ Not a joke." 

President Joe Biden did not contact Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou to talk about her new bill. But based on the recording, it certainly sounds like he did.

The experiment showed other lawmakers in Michigan just how effective the technology is. And without better regulations and rules around its use and spread, misinformation and disinformation driven by A.I. and deepfake videos and recordings could have their way come the 2024 election. 

On Jan. 6, 2021, the world witnessed firsthand what happens when words turn into actions. The stakes are even higher next year as technology continues its rapid advancement. 

And with artificial intelligence and rapidly advancing deepfake technology making it harder to separate fact from fiction, everyone from experts to election officials, reporters and professors are wary of how voters deal with the barrage of incoming information.

But educating people determining between something that is real and something that isn't is no easy task.

"The main takeaway that I try to leave my students or my friends with is that it takes a lot of work," said Prof. Adina Schneeweis, the journalism program director at Oakland University. "I can't push on it in any other way. We need to be more responsible for what we consume, what we tell other people, what we share. And it's exhausting."

What might help is defining what misinformation and disinformation are. 

The former refers to things that are not true, false information or inaccuracies, said Schneeweis. The latter is when that fake information is spread intentionally. They often arrive in the form of memes or social media posts. And they frequently arrive around conflicts and hot topics. 

And once a lie gets going, it's hard to rein in.

"A lie travels halfway around the world before the truth gets it boots on, I believe Mark Twain said, and that still holds true," said Joe Tavares, an A.I. expert. "But unfortunately, that’s the digital world these days."

Tavares studies A.I. and the world of deepfakes. He said both will make misinformation much harder to control ahead of the 2024 election. 

"Once the the news is out there, and it becomes a meme, you guys are still researching. And they've already posted it. And it's trending on Twitter," Tavares said. "It degrades general trust. You can't trust whatever the source is like, you have a trusted news source. But that new source is only as good as the person who puts the piece out or researches the piece."

FOX 2's own Tim Skubick says the spread of inaccurate information could have democracy-sized implications for the U.S.

"I've always advised people that if you make a decision to vote based on the political commercials you see on TV, do our democracy a favor and don't vote because some of that information is not accurate. In fact, some of its just boldly untrue. Now we add this AI element which as another thing because they're so good at this you can't tell," he said.

Concerning Tsernoglou's bill, the governor is expected to see the full legislation after it advances through the full Michigan House chamber. 

Also following the legislation is Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. She's been asking similar questions about what role misinformation will play in future elections.

"It’s the ball game, in my view," she said.

"What we're facing in 2024, for the really the first time in recent history, are a number of foreign adversaries, including Russia and China and Iran, who have a unique incentive to try to confuse voters or interfere with our elections," said Benson.

Benson advises that voters should always be asking questions about the information coming into their world view. "Why is that being injected into Facebook or social media? Why is this particular meme being created?" are questions to ask she said. "This is not often an innocent meme coming into our inbox."

Besides general education, Benson's office has also launched a voter confidence council comprised of business, community, faith, sports, and educational leaders to further education about the spread of election information. 

A website is also being created by the state to clear up confusion and fight misinformation as election day approaches. 

"Democracy is a team sport, it requires all of us working together, and ourselves becoming those trusted voices for our neighbors in our community," said Benson.

But until that website rolls out, FOX 2 is making a separate commitment to help clear up confusion. It's called "Reality Check" and only requires you, the reader, to send something you're unsure about to us.