Deepfakes are latest threat to American democratic system

Deepfakes are latest threat to American democratic system
© Aaron Schwartz

There is nothing new about manipulating truths in American politics. The practice is as old as our first campaigns. What is new and potentially lethal to an informed democracy are the emergence of deepfake technologies.

A recent doctored video was designed to show Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump-GOP tensions over Syria show signs of easing Democratic debate starts with immediate question on Trump impeachment White House, Pentagon, Giuliani reject House subpoenas MORE slurring her words. The video was a high technology hatchet job. Despite far and wide rebuttal, the video still gained ground and was mentioned in various media reports. Facebook refused to ban the video altogether.

The Pelosi video is not technically a deepfake. It is merely a deceptive alteration of the speed of the original recording. Still, people fell for it. If they will fall for crude editing, then they have no chance to avoid being suckered by deepfakes. The technology advances rapidly. Samsung showed that its artificial intelligence technology can create a deepfake with a single photo by using an example of the Mona Lisa brought to life.

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Political candidates on the trail expect their remarks will be taken out of context and blown entirely out of proportion. Unintentional verbal gaffes indeed have the ability to send candidates veering into clarification and denial. But what if a candidate never actually uttered words used against him or her? How can anyone ever trust democracy when democratic elections are polluted by such digital fakery?

Next week, the House Intelligence Committee will hold a hearing on the issue of deepfakes. In addition to the Pelosi video, this follows testimony by National Intelligence Director Dan Coats and the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment, which warns that our adversaries and competitors will likely attempt to use deepfakes or similar technology to create convincing but false images and videos meant “to augment influence campaigns directed against the United States and our allies and partners.”

Committee Chairman Adam Schiff expressed the stakes at a discussion last month. “Deepfakes deeply impact the democratic process,” he told the Hollywood Reporter, “because this technology can be used to create enormous confusion in an election.” It is not just Democrats. Republican Senator Marco Rubio has also prominently warned about deepfakes, speaking on it at the Heritage Foundation and the Atlantic Council.

So where can we go from here? First, with a president who has rendered himself utterly unreliable on matters of truth, and has already questioned the authenticity of the verified Access Hollywood tape of his past lewd remarks, Congress must address the threat of deepfakes directly, as it is beginning to do. We need to determine the appropriate line to be taken with social media that both protects free speech and protects against the malicious spread of misinformation in our democracy by bad actors.

Beyond what the House Intelligence Committee hearing next week will reveal, we all have a fuller responsibility to engage civically and civilly and to ensure that our citizens can critically analyze the news and discern the big difference between reality and politically motivated fabrication.

Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump grapples with Syria fallout What makes Adam Schiff tick? The Hill's Campaign Report: Warren, Sanders overtake Biden in third-quarter fundraising MORE represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.