Use of AI deepfake and social media misinformation a serious threat to India’s democracy

Cybersecurity expert, agrees that the use of deepfake "is a serious threat to democracy" as it "is difficult to detect by using automated and scalable means.

The proliferation of artificial intelligence (AI) and deepfake technology has revolutionised various sectors, including entertainment and education. However, this powerful technology has also been weaponised to spread misinformation, with social media influencers playing a significant role in disseminating these falsehoods.

An incident involving the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India highlights the dangers posed by deepfake technology. The BJP lodged a complaint about a video that falsely depicted Amit Shah, a senior party leader, stating that the party intended to end reservation quotas for Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), and Other Backward Classes (OBCs). In reality, Shah had referred to ending quotas for Muslims based on religious grounds.

For the uninitiated, deepfake technology allows for the creation of highly realistic but entirely fabricated videos, making it increasingly difficult for the average viewer to discern truth from fiction.

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The implications of such misuse are particularly dire for democratic societies, where the integrity of information is paramount to informed decision-making and public trust, especially during elections.

According to political pundits, this deliberate distortion of Shah’s words had severe repercussions, given the sensitive nature of reservation policies in India.

Prof. Paul Watters, a well-known cybersecurity expert, agrees that the use of deepfake “is a serious threat to democracy” as it “is difficult to detect by using automated and scalable means.

“There may be some level of subjectivity involved in determining whether a video or image file is a deepfake, so social media companies might face challenges to develop practical solutions. We need better technologies to identify, trace, track and block social media accounts involved in propaganda, misinformation and disinformation,” he adds.

When such technology falls into the hands of those with malicious intent, the potential for harm is enormous. Social media influencers, with their vast reach and influence, can easily become unwitting or willing conduits for spreading these falsified narratives.

As the health of a democracy relies on the free flow of accurate information, voters must be able to trust that the information they receive is truthful and complete to make informed decisions. When misinformation, especially in such a convincing format as a deepfake video, spreads unchecked, it erodes public trust.

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People begin to question not only the veracity of specific claims but also the reliability of all sources of information. This scepticism can lead to apathy, disengagement, and a polarised electorate, undermining the very foundations of democratic governance.

Dr Om Dwivedi, a UP resident, says the state’s election results were neither surprising nor unexpected “as there was disconnect between the party leadership and the ground reality.”

“No doubt the opposition used the AI well to propagate this false narratives. However, UP politics is all about caste and employment, and not about any individual. Samajwadi Party did this social engineering carefully. Also, the call for 400+ seats diminishing the Constitution triggered fear in certain sections of society,” he adds.

ICT Associate Professor Ritesh Chugh from CQUniversity Australia says that it is imperative for governments, regulatory bodies, and social media platforms to collaborate on effective strategies to combat this threat.

“Measures such as prompt removal of deepfake content, identification and penalisation of perpetrators, and public education campaigns are essential. Preserving the authenticity of information is crucial for upholding the principles of democracy and ensuring informed decision-making by citizens,” he adds.

Last year, Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi observed: “The deepfake videos have become a matter of deep concern in the society. The way deepfakes are spreading in the era of Artificial Intelligence is a big crisis! Through our programmes, we should ensure educating people about what deepfake is, how big a crisis it can turn out to be, and what can be its impacts.”

Concerted efforts to educate the public about the existence and dangers of deepfakes through media literacy programs can empower individuals to critically evaluate the information they encounter and recognize potential misinformations. Regulatory frameworks also need to be updated to address the challenges posed by AI and deepfake technology.

Dr Chugh further suggests that “the general public also has a critical role in combatting the spread of deepfakes and disinformation by staying informed, verifying sources, supporting fact-checking efforts, reporting suspected deepfakes, advocating for transparency measures, and actively engaging in critical analysis of information.”

The case involving the deepfake video in Indian election 2024 serves as a stark reminder of the perils posed by the misuse of AI technology in the digital age. To safeguard democracy, it is crucial to develop robust regulatory and media education mechanisms to detect and counteract deepfake technology.

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