Top CIA, DHS, DOJ, and FBI officials recently gathered to discuss simulations on deepfakes and violence at the polls—and, as one journalist put it, “the results weren’t encouraging.”
Just nine months away from the U.S. general election, reporting published Friday by CNN suggests the federal government is poorly prepared to respond to “nightmare scenarios,” from violence at the polls to disinformation created with artificial intelligence.
One U.S. official familiar with a previously unreported meeting at the White House Situation Room in December told CNN‘s Sean Lyngaas that in terms of a coordinated federal response to an election-related threat, “we’re all f—king tied up in knots.”
Citing four unnamed sources, Lyngaas reported that leaders from the Central Intelligence Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and departments of Homeland Security and Justice gathered for a first-of-its-kind drill featuring two simulations: “What if Chinese operatives created a fake AI-generated video showing a Senate candidate destroying ballots? And how should federal agencies respond if violence erupts at polling stations on Election Day?”
Federal officials held an exercise in December to practice responding to election threats like fake AI-generated ballot-tampering videos and polling-place violence, and the results weren't encouraging, @snlyngaas reports.https://t.co/5WmaEpW2KP pic.twitter.com/2mrzq1UCVJ— Eric Geller (@ericgeller) February 9, 2024
According to Lyngaas:
The participants opted for state election officials, and not the federal government, to lead any public messaging to counter disinformation spread by the fake video in their jurisdictions, two of the sources said. Officials also discussed options for notifying Congress. No one at the table raised their hand offering to be the lead federal agency to tell the public about the deepfake.
As for violence at the polls, the federal officials decided not to dispatch federal agents to support local police because they did not have the jurisdiction to do so.
The reporting comes as Democratic President Joe Biden seeks reelection. Based on polling and the GOP primaries and caucuses so far, he is expected to face former President Donald Trump, despite arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday that states should be able to remove the Republican front-runner from ballots because he engaged in insurrection on January 6, 2021.
“People from across the political spectrum and from all walks of life—from former members of Congress to constitutional scholars to everyday Americans—have come together in this exceptional and fragile moment in the history of American democracy to reinforce the Constitution’s very purpose in safeguarding our democracy from insurrectionists,” said Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a watchdog representing Colorado voters in the case before the high court. “On January 6th we saw what it looked like when Trump tried to tear down the foundations of our democracy.”
After months of denying his 2020 loss to Biden, Trump told a crowd on January 6 that “we’re going to the Capitol, and… we’re going to try and give our Republicans… the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.” Although Trump didn’t join his supporters, their deadly Capitol attack delayed the certification of the election results.
After our Supreme Court arguments seeking to bar Donald Trump from the ballot for inciting the January 6th insurrection, Trump went on to hold a press conference in which he admitted that January 6th was an insurrection. https://t.co/qg9ZsvJiMw— Citizens for Ethics (@CREWcrew) February 8, 2024
Since Trump’s “Big Lie” about the 2020 contest and incitement of insurrection, fears have been mounting about election safety—elevated by Trump’s fascist comments on the campaign trail, such as his threat to “root out” those he described as “radical left thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our country” if he is elected in November.
A September report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and Giffords—founded by a former congresswoman who survived being shot in the head—details changes in gun control legislation in response to a right-wing U.S. Supreme Court ruling, how disinformation has fueled political violence, and increases in extremism and shootings.
“Though American elections have remained safe and secure, both political and gun violence pose significant risks to the safety of voters and people bravely conducting our elections,” report co-author Allison Anderman of Giffords Law Center warned last year. “The 2024 presidential election brings an unprecedented confluence of factors that heighten these risks.”
While the groups’ report largely focuses on the lies that Trump and his allies spread after he lost in 2020, other campaigners, experts, journalists, and policymakers have been sounding the alarm about the dangers of AI-driven disinformation.
Just weeks after New Hampshire residents received robocalls featuring a fake message with Biden’s voice telling them not to vote in the state’s primary, the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday declared such calls illegal under U.S. law. The Federal Election Commission is weighing new rules for deepfake content, which has already been used in 2024 campaign materials, but the agency recently said that a decision is likely several months away—a timeline critics called “intolerable.”
Concerns about AI, disinformation, and democracy aren’t limited to the United States—as demonstrated by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists‘ statement last month about why the Doomsday Clock remains at 90 seconds to midnight, a signal for how close the world is to catastrophe.
“AI has great potential to magnify disinformation and corrupt the information environment on which democracy depends,” the Bulletin said. “AI-enabled disinformation efforts could be a factor that prevents the world from dealing effectively with nuclear risks, pandemics, and climate change.”
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