Age of Information sparked democratic uprisings. In AI-powered Age of Disinformation, tyrants are fighting back – Scotsman comment

Faked videos and pictures pose a threat to genuine democratic debate

The ease with which photographs and videos can be edited, altered and entirely faked is a paradigm-shifting technological revolution that everyone in the free world urgently needs to wake up to or it could play a significant role in the corruption of democracy.

The Age of Information sparked by the internet was as big an event in human history as the invention of the printing press, which was closely followed by Europe’s religious wars, and has been credited with starting the pro-democracy Arab Spring uprisings against various tyrants. The Age of Disinformation presents an opportunity for authoritarian states to fight back, and they are taking it.

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The danger of faked videos and pictures has always been with us, but new editing tools and artificial intelligence have combined to make it much easier to mass produce compelling images that are difficult not to believe on first viewing. So much so, that it is now something many people do almost casually and entirely innocently.

The issue was highlighted recently by the Princess of Wales’ editing of a family photo. And, while the subsequent controversy was no great scandal – it was an understandable human error for which she has apologised – it should serve as a reminder of the potential to be deceived. In a way, Catherine may have inadvertently done us all a favour.

A report published by the US State Department in September warned that China (PRC) was spending billions of dollars every year on “foreign information manipulation efforts”, using “a variety of deceptive and coercive methods”. “The PRC’s global information manipulation is not simply a matter of public diplomacy – but a challenge to the integrity of the global information space,” it said, adding that artificial intelligence could enable China to “surgically target foreign audiences and thereby perhaps influence economic and security decisions in its favour”.

A central plank of democratic countries’ defences against such outrageous and unacceptable attacks is to raise public awareness about what’s happening. Our first reaction to a politically sensitive video should not be a rush to judgment but to ask ourselves: “Is this real?”

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