Tech companies combat AI-generated election trickery

Tech executives from Adobe, Amazon, Google, IBM, Meta, Microsoft, OpenAI and TikTok gathered at the Munich Security Conference to announce a new voluntary framework for how they will respond to AI-generated deepfakes that deliberately trick voters.

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February 16, 2024 - 2:44 PM

Google was among several tech companies to voluntarily adopt “reasonable precautions” to prevent artificial intelligence tools from being used to disrupt democratic elections around the world. Photo by Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group/TNS

Major technology companies signed a pact Friday to voluntarily adopt “reasonable precautions” to prevent artificial intelligence tools from being used to disrupt democratic elections around the world.

Tech executives from Adobe, Amazon, Google, IBM, Meta, Microsoft, OpenAI and TikTok gathered at the Munich Security Conference to announce a new voluntary framework for how they will respond to AI-generated deepfakes that deliberately trick voters. Twelve other companies — including Elon Musk’s X — are also signing on to the accord.

“Everybody recognizes that no one tech company, no one government, no one civil society organization is able to deal with the advent of this technology and its possible nefarious use on their own,” said Nick Clegg, president of global affairs for Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, in an interview ahead of the summit.

The accord is largely symbolic, but targets increasingly realistic AI-generated images, audio and video “that deceptively fake or alter the appearance, voice, or actions of political candidates, election officials, and other key stakeholders in a democratic election, or that provide false information to voters about when, where, and how they can lawfully vote.”

The companies aren’t committing to ban or remove deepfakes. Instead, the accord outlines methods they will use to try to detect and label deceptive AI content when it is created or distributed on their platforms. It notes the companies will share best practices with each other and provide “swift and proportionate responses” when that content starts to spread.

The vagueness of the commitments and lack of any binding requirements likely helped win over a diverse swath of companies, but may disappoint pro-democracy activists and watchdogs looking for stronger assurances.

“The language isn’t quite as strong as one might have expected,” said Rachel Orey, senior associate director of the Elections Project at the Bipartisan Policy Center. “I think we should give credit where credit is due, and acknowledge that the companies do have a vested interest in their tools not being used to undermine free and fair elections. That said, it is voluntary, and we’ll be keeping an eye on whether they follow through.”

Clegg said each company “quite rightly has its own set of content policies.”

“This is not attempting to try to impose a straitjacket on everybody,” he said. “And in any event, no one in the industry thinks that you can deal with a whole new technological paradigm by sweeping things under the rug and trying to play whack-a-mole and finding everything that you think may mislead someone.”

The agreement at the German city’s annual security meeting comes as more than 50 countries are due to hold national elections in 2024. Some have already done so, including Bangladesh, Taiwan, Pakistan, and most recently Indonesia.

Attempts at AI-generated election interference have already begun, such as when AI robocalls that mimicked U.S. President Joe Biden’s voice tried to discourage people from voting in New Hampshire’s primary election last month.

Just days before Slovakia’s elections in November, AI-generated audio recordings impersonated a liberal candidate discussing plans to raise beer prices and rig the election. Fact-checkers scrambled to identify them as false, but they were already widely shared as real across social media.

Politicians and campaign committees also have experimented with the technology, from using AI chatbots to communicate with voters to adding AI-generated images to ads.

Ahead of Indonesia’s election, the leader of a political party shared a video cloning the face and voice of the deceased dictator Suharto. The post on X disclosed the video was generated by AI, but some online critics called it a misuse of AI tools to intimidate and sway voters.

Friday’s accord said in responding to AI-generated deepfakes, platforms “will pay attention to context and in particular to safeguarding educational, documentary, artistic, satirical, and political expression.”

It said the companies will focus on transparency to users about their policies on deceptive AI election content and work to educate the public about how they can avoid falling for AI fakes.

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