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BusinnessDay: Voting in an age of deepfakes, truth in an era of digital mirages

Democracies around the world are susceptible to the siren call of deepfake misinformation.

By Johan Steyn, 23 August 2023


In the annals of democracy, perhaps no period has been as contentious as the one we navigate now.


US elections of recent memory bore witness to the unprecedented fusion of technology and politics, illustrating the frailties of a democracy subjected to technological interference and widespread disinformation campaigns. Now, as we delve deeper into the intricacies of the digital age, we confront an even more formidable adversary: AI-generated deepfakes.


These digital marvels, which masterfully intertwine reality with crafted fiction, present challenges that transcend mere technological gimmickry. They strike at the very heart of democracy by eroding trust, distorting the truth, and amplifying divisions. The potential ripple effects of such manipulation do not stop at the US. Democracies around the world, each with its unique sociopolitical tapestry, find themselves equally vulnerable to the siren call of deepfake-driven misinformation.


As SA’s 2024 general election draws nearer, the imperative is clear. We must comprehend the scope and gravity of the deepfake challenge. This is not just about safeguarding one election cycle, but about preserving and fortifying the democratic principles on which societies thrive. The narrative is global for the quest to protect truth and uphold democratic values resonates universally. This journey, of upholding truth in an era of digital mirages, stands as a defining moment for democracies on the global stage.


At its core, deepfakes use deep learning neural networks to create alarmingly realistic fake videos or audio recordings. Their evolution from innocuous entertainment to tools of deception mirrors increasing sophistication and potential misuse of digital tools.


It’s crucial to note that technological interference isn’t a novel concern. Previous US elections saw allegations and evidence of misinformation campaigns, bot-driven narratives, and targeted hacks. While these disruptions were distressing, the rapid advancement of deepfakes presents an even more insidious threat. Crafted videos or audio could represent candidates falsely, creating chaos and eroding public trust. The hypothetical becomes terrifyingly real when we consider a candidate being portrayed falsely with the potential of swaying public opinion overnight.


Addressing the menace of deepfakes demands a cohesive strategy. On the legislative front, defining and penalising malicious use of deepfakes is a priority. The delicate balance is ensuring that in curbing misinformation we don’t inadvertently stifle genuine creativity and free expression.


However, perhaps the most potent weapon in our arsenal is public awareness. An electorate equipped with media literacy, that can approach digital content with discernment, can diminish the potency of deepfake-driven misinformation significantly. This involves understanding the technology and recognising its potential implications on democratic processes.


While the 2024 US election is our immediate focus, it’s essential to contextualise deepfakes as a global challenge. Other nations have similarly grappled with technological interference, emphasising the need for international dialogues and shared defensive strategies.


The spectre of the past election’s technological interference looms large, reminding us of the vulnerabilities in our democratic fabric. But as 2024 approaches, legislators have the opportunity to reinforce that fabric, ensuring it remains resilient against evolving the challenges AI and deepfakes present.


In the end, the objective is clear: safeguarding the democratic ethos. By coupling technological defences with an informed and vigilant citizenry, we can ensure that irrespective of technological advancements, the essence of democracy remains unblemished.


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