Primer: Digital Threats to Democracy

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by Delila Nakaidinae, Jaylin R. Smith, and Xander Norris

Democracy looks different in the Information Age. While citizens have access to more high-quality information than ever before, they’re faced with more disinformation than ever before, too. Online conspiracy theories. Deep fakes. Artificial intelligence. It’s a dangerous landscape. 

Next week, the Overby Center will explore these topics in its opening panel of the spring semester, featuring ProPublica’s Andy Kroll, UM journalism dean Andrea Hickerson and EdgeTheory founder Greg Griffith. The event starts at 5:30 p.m. in the Overby auditorium and is open to the public. A generous reception and open bar will follow. 

In the meantime, let’s take a deeper dive into some of these issues:

Political Conspiracy Theories

A poll conducted in 2021 by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that only 16% of Americans say democracy is working well or extremely well. The poll also found that another 38% of Americans said democracy is working only somewhat well.

The importance of social media as an agent of change cannot be ignored; it gives a voice to disenfranchised individuals. Social media has undoubtedly changed our political landscape; it’s a tool that many Americans use to stay informed about current political events. According to a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center, more than half of Americans turn to Twitter for their news. However, in society, social networks have been used to promote fake news and propaganda. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook hold the potential to alter civic engagement, thus essentially hijacking democracy by influencing individuals toward a particular way of thinking.

Following the last presidential election in 2020, social media platforms were ripe with political conspiracy theories of voter fraud and the Jan. 6 insurrection. Many of these conspiracy theories reflect a widespread loss of faith in institutions like the government and the media.

These surveys show believers in conspiracy theories are more likely to get their information from social media than from professional news outlets. When trust breaks down between the press and the public, polarization and anxiety increase, creating opportunities for individuals to push their own conspiracies and alternate facts on social media.

Artificial intelligence

In today’s digital age, artificial intelligence (AI) is inescapable. With Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, and Windows Cortana, for example, users are able to easily gain access to information. They are used as personal assistants and offer simple solutions to things that may be seen as trivial. While the convenience is practical for most people who are constantly on the go, governments have been implementing AI in ways that could be harmful to democracy as a whole. 

China’s government has been experimenting with AI security systems and the consequences of using these security systems has been seen in some provinces where this is prominent. From the smartphone usage of the citizens in the province to their daily movements, the government sees and knows all via the AI security system. 

Along with the security and assistance, narrative AI is also making its way to becoming more widely used. Narrative AI uses a combination of listening, understanding, and data analysis to gather information on stories that are sprouted online. With narrative intelligence, anything that goes viral on the web can be traced all the way back to its origin. For example, this could include articles with false information about presidential candidates. 

As the United States becomes more reliant on AI in the justice system, we are seeing that certain groups of people are being unfairly targeted due to biases. Along with the biases that are practically hammered into the AI, there are also questions of how AI can and is used to change the tide of elections and push an agenda whilst propagandizing a whole country.

AI has been known to be used by governments and politicians to push their agendas. Deepfakes are the direct creation of AI and they often cause rifts between what is real and can be used in close elections. The threat AI poses to democracy is an invasion of privacy and unfair circumstances for elections, the justice system, and much more.

Deepfakes

The power of deepfakes has made an irrefutable mark on the way that news and information pieces are trusted among the public. Dating back to 1997 with the creation of the Video Rewrite Program, augmented reality has altered the way that audience members see videos on social media and other news outlets. The mechanisms behind deepfakes allow for its creators to change both the visual and auditory components of videos in an effort to deceive viewers. 

Video by 60 Minutes

Deepfakes debuted on the internet in 2017, and were used to craft videos of people conveying fake messages. Through computer programming, deceivers are able to create falsehoods with the faces and voices of subjects, making them appear to say things they never said. While the advances in technology are applaudable, the dangers of deepfakes are very present during a time in which the credibility of the media is constantly brought into question. 

Deepfakes are classified as extremely volatile to the legitimacy of democratic processes and practices. These manufactured videos have the ability to impact elections, legislation, judicial actions, and so much more. A dichotomy is created as audience members become aware of deepfakes. As more people learn about the intent to deceive that is perpetuated throughout the media, they become less trusting of news agencies altogether.

In a world where the intention to validate and the intention to deceive are equally grappling at the attention of audience members, it is essential that people become aware of instruments used to maliciously destroy public trust in the media. Though they are powerful tools, conspiracies, deepfakes, and artificial intelligence can be harmful to the institution of credibility that news agencies have constructed over the years. While social awareness is imperative, it is exigent that media agents work to find solutions that debunk the fabrication of information and protect the trust that the public places in the news.