AI high risk, high reward for low-profile campaigns

Adrian Perkins was running for reelection as the mayor of Shreveport, Louisiana, when he was surprised by a harsh campaign hit piece.

The satirical TV commercial, paid for by a rival political action committee, used artificial intelligence to depict Perkins as a high school student who had been called into the principal’s office. Instead of giving a tongue-lashing for cheating on a test or getting in a fight, the principal blasted Perkins for failing to keep communities safe and create jobs.

The video superimposed Perkins’ face onto the body of an actor playing him. Although the ad was labeled as being created with “deep learning computer technology,” Perkins said it was powerful and resonated with voters. He didn’t have enough money or campaign staff to counteract it, and thinks it was one of many reasons he lost the 2022 race. A representative for the group behind the ad did not respond to a request for comment.

“One hundred percent the deepfake ad affected our campaign because we were a down-ballot, less resourced place,” said Perkins, a Democrat. “You had to pick and choose where you put your efforts.”

While such attacks are staples of the rough-and-tumble of political campaigning, the ad targeting Perkins was notable: It’s believed to be one of the first examples of an AI deepfake deployed in a political race in the U.S. It also foreshadowed a dilemma facing candidates in scores of state and local races this year as generative AI has become more widespread and easier to use.

The technology — which can do everything from streamlining mundane campaign tasks to creating fake images, video or audio — already has been deployed in some national races around the country and has spread far more widely in elections across the globe. Despite its power as a tool to mislead, efforts to regulate it have been piecemeal or delayed, a gap that could have the greatest impact on lower-profile races down the ballot.

Artificial intelligence is a double-edged sword for candidates running such campaigns. Inexpensive, user-friendly AI models can help them save money and time on some of their day-to-day tasks. But they often don’t have the staff or expertise to combat AI-generated falsehoods, adding to fears that an eleventh-hour deepfake could fool enough voters to tilt races decided by narrow margins.

“AI-enabled threats affect close races and low-profile contests where slight shifts matter and where there are often fewer resources correcting misleading stories,” said Josh Lawson, director of AI and democracy for the Aspen Institute.

National safeguards lackingSome local candidates already have faced criticism for deploying AI in misleading ways, from a Republican state senate candidate in Tennessee who used an AI headshot to make himself look slimmer and younger to Philadelphia’s Democratic sheriff, whose reelection campaign promoted fake news stories generated by ChatGPT.

One challenge in separating fact from fiction is the decline of local news outlets, which in many places has meant far less coverage of candidates running for state and local office, especially reporting that digs into candidates’ backgrounds and how their campaigns operate. The lack of familiarity with candidates could make voters more open to believing fake information, said U.S. Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia.

The Democrat, who has worked extensively on AI-related legislation as chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said AI-generated misinformation is easier to spot and combat in high-profile races because they are under greater scrutiny. When an AI-generated robocall impersonated President Joe Biden to discourage voters from going to the polls in the New Hampshire primary this year, it was quickly reported in the media and investigated, resulting in serious consequences for the players behind it.

More than a third of states have passed laws regulating artificial intelligence in politics, and legislation aimed specifically at fighting election-related deepfakes has received bipartisan support in each state where it has passed, according to the nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen.

But Congress has yet to act, despite several bipartisan groups of lawmakers proposing such legislation.

“Congress is pathetic,” said Warner, who said he was pessimistic about Congress passing any legislation protecting elections from AI interference this year.

Travis Brimm, executive director of the Democratic Association of Secretaries of State, called the specter of AI misinformation in down-ballot races an evolving issue in which people are “still working to figure out the best way forward.”

“This is a real challenge, and that’s why you’ve seen Democratic secretaries jump to address it and pass real legislation with real penalties around the abuse of AI,” Brimm said.

A spokesperson for the Republican Secretaries of State Committee did not respond to the AP’s request for comment.

How do you regulate integrity?While experts and lawmakers worry about how generative AI attacks could skew an election, some candidates for state or local office said AI tools have proven invaluable to their campaigns. The powerful computer systems, software or processes can emulate aspects of human work and cognition.

Glenn Cook, a Republican running for a state legislative seat in southeastern Georgia, is less well-known and has much less campaign cash than the incumbent he is facing in a runoff election on Tuesday. So, he has invested in a digital consultant who creates much of his campaign’s content using inexpensive, publicly available generative AI models.

On his website, AI-generated articles are peppered with AI-generated images of community members smiling and chatting, none of whom actually exist. AI-generated podcast episodes use a cloned version of his voice to narrate his policy positions.

Cook said he reviews everything before it is made public. The savings — in both time and money — have let him knock on more doors in the district and attend more in-person campaign events.

“My wife and I did 4,500 doors down here,” he said. “It frees you up to do a lot.”


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