Technology always starts off with the loftiest of ideals and then gets dragged into the basement. VHS tapes were supposed to bring "time shifting" recording of live TV for later rewatch to the masses; they ended up spawning the video porn industry. Online social networks were supposed to help us stay connected with far flung friends and families in new ways; instead they've turned into quagmires of misinformation, increasingly warped social standards, and doom-scrolling depression feeds. And AI was supposed to help us do stuff easier and allow us to explore our best human attributes — instead it's being used for fake war propaganda and now political attack ads.

Before we go any further, I want to be clear that I am not taking any political positions in this article, there are no lines to read between. If you comment, be civil.

This week an official account of the Governor Ron DeSantis's campaign for the Republican Presidential primary posted a video that included AI-generated images of former President Donald Trump embracing and kissing on the head former NIAID director Anthony Fauci. The video was posted by "DeSantis War Room", an account specializing in trolling and campaign memes, and in this video calls attention to the not-fired working relationship between Trump and Fauci during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic (in unspoken contrast to the anti-lockdown, anti-mask, and anti-vaccine tactics employed by DeSantis). Most of the video is simply footage of Trump at various points, playing his "The Apprentice" persona against his political persona.

Ai Image Campaign Ad
Source: DeSantis War Room

But there's a moment that stands out: a grid of six images of Trump and Fauci, except that half of them are almost certainly AI-generated fakes. At no point did Trump and Fauci hug on camera, but right there are three images of just that.

All told, this is maybe a minor thing in political storytelling. Embellishment is so common of a campaign tactic that it's not even a "tactic", it's just how you do things. Play up your own record, downplay your opponent's. And that's what the DeSantis campaign is doing here: playing up Trump's association with Fauci in an attempt to drive a wedge between Trump and supporters. It's embellishment — you could say that Trump "embraced" Fauci's policies, or you could literally show it. It's not like this isn't something political cartoonists haven't been doing for hundreds of years, right?

Wrong. This is different. The problem we face is that generative AI, likely in this case to have been Midjourney, is too easy to use for nefarious purposes like this and too easily dupes people. It was just a few weeks ago that fake images purporting to show smoke after an explosion at the Pentagon rattled the stock market, and those were objectively bad fakes that looked nothing like the Pentagon and could be proven false by anybody in DC just looking outside.

I can imagine the prompt to the AI image generator: "Donald Trump embracing and kissing on the head a smiling Anthony Fauci at the White House, photorealistic"

This kind of fakery is more subtle — this definitely looks like Trump and Fauci at a glance, and even creates a passably convincing backdrop of the White House briefing room and outside the executive residence. I can imagine the prompt now: "Donald Trump embracing and kissing on the head a smiling Anthony Fauci at the White House, photorealistic" and getting this exact set of images back. It doesn't take much scrutiny to see that these images are fake — Trump's hair is all wrong, Fauci's nose is too large, the shadows between them are just a darkening gradient, and the placard behind the lectern that would read "The White House, Washington" instead says "Mehihap B, VW.EMS" (and the number of columns on the front of the building is off by one).

But at a glance they're convincing enough. The lighting looks right, the proportions aren't weird, it even managed to capture the way the two old mens' necks fold over their shirt collars. It's on the screen brief enough and overlaid with fast-changing text and voiceover that most won't pick up on it. And most importantly it serves to reinforce the DeSantis campaign's narrative.

And this isn't even the first time this AI has been used like for campaign ads. Last month the Republican National Committee posted a video entirely composed of fake images fear-mongering over a second Biden term, echoing Lyndon B. Johnson's 1964 "Daisy Girl" nuclear bomb attack ad against Barry Goldwater. You could argue that it's one thing to create a fake image of not-real people and another to do so of real people, and you'd be correct. They're also just two spots on the same slippery slope to rampant disinformation.

Fake media has been a real struggle in recent years, especially with the viral sharing of altered or outright fabricated Twitter screenshots. We've all seen somebody we know fall victim to that kind of trickery, or even fallen for it ourselves. Sometimes it's just amusing, but sometimes it's nefarious and too many people will just believe whatever they see right in front of them without realizing how easy it is to make something fake. Not nearly enough people go out to find original sources to verify the screenshot they're seeing, and by the time they do the outrage cycle is in full swing and their shouts of "Actually, that's not real!" get lost in the noise. I see it happen all the time on Facebook and Reddit.

Generative AI imagery hasn't been around for that long and we're already seeing it being used in this sort of deceptive manner. It's only going to get worse as both the technology improves and operatives become more brazen in their use of it. The truth matters is more important than ever, and every day it gets harder to know what's true or not.

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