Texas fights to preserve Democracy amid rise of deepfakes in elections

Tom Abrahams Image
Sunday, May 26, 2024
Texas' fight against deepfakes: Preserving Democracy amidst rise of Artificial Intelligence in elections
Texas was the first state in the nation, and now one of 11, to legislate against deepfakes. Whether video, audio, or images, it's up to you, the voter, to take the extra step and confirm the deception yourself.

TEXAS (KTRK) -- In late April, a photo surfaced on social media showing Republican Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan embracing Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat and former Speaker of the House.

"Important Voter Alert!" Phelan posted on his account just weeks before a runoff to retain his seat, along with two images. He cited a deepfake image in which his face was superimposed over Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries.

"Deepfakes" are raising alarms in political circles, and campaigns and policymakers are working hard to find the balance between embracing Artificial Intelligence for its many benefits and containing its potential threats to democracy.

Ryan Kennedy studies the intersection of public policy and artificial intelligence at the University of Houston.

He says AI has democratized the ability to manipulate media in three key ways: lower cost, increased scale, and greater personalization.

"Well, there's a lot of concerns about the use of artificial intelligence to generate misinformation," Kennedy told ABC13. "So policymakers have to chart this very difficult course between encouraging the development of what are quite useful technologies, while at the same time making sure that they aren't put to bad use for voters."

Texas was the first state in the nation, and now one of 11, to legislate against so-called deepfakes. State Senator Bryan Hughes of Tyler authored the bill and it passed in 2019.

"It's about deepfake videos in particular," Hughes said. "State governments are grappling with what to do about it. We don't want to regulate this in a way that stifles innovation and free speech. We also want to make sure the public is not being misled."

In Texas, the law prohibits the use of a deepfake video within 30 days of an election. The offense is a Class A misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $4000 and a year in jail. Hughes says it's an evolving landscape, and with committees studying AI this summer, he expects more legislation next session.

"Artificial intelligence is everywhere," Hughes said.

It is everywhere. Earlier this year, the New Hampshire Attorney General sent a cease and desist letter to a Texas telecom company for enabling AI-generated deepfake robocalls ahead of the New Hampshire Primary in which a Joe Biden's voice told voters to stay home, not vote for him then but to save their votes for November.

New York Mayor Eric Adams embraced AI to translate his voice into other languages he does not speak in phone calls to constituents.

The Royal Family recently took a credibility hit for altering a photograph of Princess Catherine and her children before revealing her cancer diagnosis.

A recent report from the non-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate revealed just how easy it is to produce fake images of candidates in politically damaging situations or efforts to undermine election integrity.

From ballots in dumpsters and election workers rigging machines to Donald Trump being arrested and Joe Biden greeting immigrants at the border.

Darrell West, Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington, said democracy is on the line.

"People should be very worried about misinformation in this campaign," West said. "We've democratized the technology by making it available to virtually anyone. You don't need a lot of technical expertise to do this. We're going to see fake videos and fake audio tapes in this campaign."

They're out there, whether video, audio, or images, it's up to you, the voter, to take the extra step and confirm the deception yourself. It's another layer between you and the ballot box.

"People need to be good consumers of news information," UH's Kennedy said. "They need to understand that what they see on their social media feed is not necessarily the truth."

Current law in Texas does not prohibit the use of deepfake images in a campaign but that could be changing. Expect more conversation in Austin and on Capitol Hill as lawmakers balance free speech with election interference.

Stay on the pulse of Texas politics! Follow Tom Abrahams on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.