This month, the New York state attorney general issued a report on a scheme by “U.S. Companies and Partisans [to] Hack Democracy.” This wasn’t another attempt by Republicans to make it harder for Black people and urban residents to vote. It was a concerted attack on another core element of U.S. democracy — the ability of citizens to express their voice to their political representatives. And it was carried out by generating millions of fake comments and fake emails purporting to come from real citizens.
This attack was detected because it was relatively crude. But artificial intelligence technologies are making it possible to generate genuine-seeming comments at scale, drowning out the voices of real citizens in a tidal wave of fake ones.
...The big telecommunications companies paid millions of dollars to specialist “AstroTurf” companies to generate public comments. These companies then stole people’s names and email addresses from old files and from hacked data dumps and attached them to 8.5 million public comments and half a million letters to members of Congress. All of them said that they supported the corporations’ position on something called “net neutrality,” the idea that telecommunications companies must treat all Internet content equally and not prioritize any company or service. Three AstroTurf companies — Fluent, Opt-Intelligence and React2Media — agreed to pay nearly $4 million in fines.
The fakes were crude. Many of them were identical, while others were patchworks of simple textual variations: substituting “Federal Communications Commission” and “FCC” for each other, for example.
Next time, though, we won’t be so lucky. New technologies are about to make it far easier to generate enormous numbers of convincing personalized comments and letters, each with its own word choices, expressive style and pithy examples. The people who create fake grass-roots organizations have always been enthusiastic early adopters of technology, weaponizing letters, faxes, emails and Web comments to manufacture the appearance of public support or public outrage.