Election 2024: The Deepfake Threat to the 2024 Election
from The Water's Edge, Renewing America, and Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy

Election 2024: The Deepfake Threat to the 2024 Election

Each Friday, I look at what the presidential contenders are saying about foreign policy. This Week: AI generated deepfake videos, images, and recordings could become a factor in the U.S. presidential election.
A miniature robot in front of the U.S. flag, illustrated on December 21, 2023.
A miniature robot in front of the U.S. flag, illustrated on December 21, 2023. Dado Ruvic/Reuters

Could artificial intelligence (AI) disrupt the November elections?

It’s not an idle question. Just hours before Slovakia’s parliamentary election last September, an audio recording went viral on Slovakian social media. The leader of the Progressive Slovakia Party could be heard plotting to rig the election and saying he planned to raise taxes on beer. (Slovakia ranks sixteenth in the world in consumption of beer per capita.) The audio was an AI-generated fake.

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The Slovak experience isn’t unique. Just last month, some New Hampshire Democrats received AI-generated robocalls in Joe Biden’s voice urging them to stay home rather than vote in the state’s primary.

Both instances highlighted how rapid advances in AI technology have made it easier to create so-called deepfakes that are difficult to distinguish from authentic audio and video. And that technology is only getting better with time.

It's unclear what impact, if any, either of these AI deepfakes had on the vote. Progressive Slovakia captured the second-most number of seats, but polls had previously shown it trailing the winning party. Biden garnered three times as many votes as did the second-place finisher, even though he was a write-in candidate.

It’s also unclear who was behind these deepfakes. It could have been rival political parties, foreign actors, lone individuals with a grudge, or pranksters seeking to show off their talents.

But the potential for disruption is clear. And the impact will be greatest in hotly contested elections where the movement of small numbers of voters from one column to another changes who wins. That, of course, describes most recent U.S. presidential elections.

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The challenge is how to respond to the threat. Deepfakes can appear on any social media platform. In keeping with the adage that “lies will travel around the world before the truth can put on its shoes,” deepfakes can be widely shared—and believed—before anyone in a position to act notices. Even when social media platforms know a fake exists, they can be slow to act. And some platforms greatly limit the content they will police on free speech grounds.

Federal law on deepfakes is scant, and recent court decisions have made it harder for the executive branch officials to press social media sites to take down material. Some states have passed laws making it a crime to create and share politically motivated deepfakes during election season. Whether those laws would hold up in court is unclear, especially if creators can argue that their creations qualify as constitutionally protected satire. Even if the laws hold up, the penalties would hit only after the damage has been done. The threat of jail time also isn’t likely to deter foreign intelligence agencies seeking to sow misinformation and disinformation. 

Technology won’t be riding to the rescue. One much-talked-about innovation is embedding watermarks in AI-generated images, videos, audio. But watermarks are breakable, and foreign intelligence agencies won’t use them in any event. And the widespread use of watermarks could have a perverse result. Users might assume that the absence of a watermark is proof that an image or audio is real.

Time may be the best antidote as deepfakes get exposed and debunked, though the fact that most Republicans continue to believe that the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump shows that facts don’t always drive out falsehoods. But if time does heal at least some AI wounds, the converse is troubling: Deepfakes released close to Election Day could have an outsized impact because there won’t be time to debunk them.

So yes, AI could, despite all the great benefits it promises to deliver, add even more strain to an already fraying American democracy.

Campaign Update

With Iowa and New Hampshire now in the rearview mirror, Trump leads Haley thirty-two to seventeen in the delegate count. Trump’s lead will jump to forty-one after the Nevada Republican caucuses conclude next Thursday. Trump is the only major candidate participating in the caucuses, so he will take all twenty-six delegates up for grabs. (Little-known Ryan Binkley, who finished fifth in Iowa with 0.7 percent of the vote, is also on the ballot.) Nevada is also holding a Republican primary next Tuesday. Haley will be on that ballot. But that primary won’t allocate delegates. The dueling caucuses and primary reflects a disagreement between the Nevada state government and the Nevada state Republican Party.

Dean Phillips asked the Wisconsin Supreme Court to order that his name be placed on the state’s primary ballot after Wisconsin’s state Democratic Party put only Biden’s name on the ballot. Wisconsin holds its primary on April 2.

Third-party candidate Cornel West announced on Wednesday that he has created a new political party, the Justice for All (JFA) party. West, who initially sought to run as a candidate for the People’s Party, then later as a candidate of the Green Party, now faces the logistically daunting task of getting JFA on state ballots. He plans to run as an independent in states that won’t include the JFA on ballots.

The Candidates in Their Own Words

Trump removed all doubt this week that he wants to torpedo any bipartisan bill to secure the U.S. southern border, even if the bill gives Republicans much of what they want. At a campaign rally in Las Vegas on Saturday, he noted that Congress was trying to write a bill and said “I’ll fight it all the way.” He added that should the bill fail: “Please blame it on me. Please.” Meanwhile, Biden said that if Congress passes a bill he will sign it and use it to shut down the southern border “right now.”

Trump responded to the attack last weekend by Iran-backed Iraqi militants that killed three U.S. service members and injured three dozen more by claiming that it "would NEVER have happened" if he were president. However, something similar did happen when he was president. In March 2020, a rocket attack by an Iranian-back militia killed two U.S. service members and one British soldier at a base in Iraq.

Haley responded to the strike by saying that Biden should “go after the launch sites where they’re doing it, and then go after the leadership.” But she added that “you don’t bomb Iran.” Her model looks to be the Trump administration’s January 2020 airstrike that killed Qassem Soleimani on Iraqi soil.

In a Fox interview, Haley called specifically for targeting the leaders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps whether inside or outside of Iran. She also repeated her warning to “don’t go and bomb the country.” She argued that a few targeted killings would “send a message” to Iran’s leaders.

What the Pundits Are Saying

Gallup asked Americans a generic question about their willingness to vote for “a generally well-qualified person for president who happened” to also have a particular characteristic, like being a woman or being Catholic. The poll found that just 31 percent of respondents said they would vote for someone who is over the age of eighty, and just 29 percent said they would vote for a candidate who had been charged with a felony. None of the other characteristics that Gallup offered, with the exception of being convicted of a felony (23 percent), polled lower. The obvious irony is that the 2024 election will likely pit someone older than eighty against someone who has been charged with a felony.

My colleague Max Boot wrote in the Washington Post that the 2024 election “will be a referendum not only on the future of American democracy but also on the future of America’s role in the world.” In Max’s view, “for decades, Trump has espoused consistently protectionist, isolationist views. He didn’t have as much success as he hoped in implementing his philosophy the first time around. The danger is that he would be more effective in his second term.” 

Stephen Wertheim wrote in The Atlantic that Biden’s focus on defending democracy overseas is misguided. The president “may think he’s unifying the country by defending distant democracies, but his democracy-first framing is divisive—and may be making overseas conflicts worse.”

The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein reported that Trump plans to wage a trade war against China should he return to the Oval Office. “Publicly, the GOP front-runner has endorsed downgrading China’s trade status with the United States—a move that… could lead to federal tariffs on Chinese imports of more than 40 percent.” Meanwhile, “privately, Trump has discussed with advisers the possibility of imposing a flat 60 percent tariff on all Chinese imports.”

The Campaign Schedule

The South Carolina Democratic primary, the first official nominating event on the Democrats’ calendar, is tomorrow (February 3, 2024).

Oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on whether Colorado can bar Trump from appearing on the state’s primary ballot are next Thursday (February 8, 2024).

The South Carolina Republican primary is twenty-two days away (February 24, 2024).

The State of the Union address is thirty-four days away (March 7, 2024).

The start of the Republican National Convention in Milwaukee is 164 days away (July 15, 2024).

The start of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago is 199 days away (August 19, 2024).

Election Day is 277 days away.

Inauguration Day is 353 days away.

Sinet Adous and Michelle Kurilla assisted in the preparation of this post.

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.

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