The flood of machine-generated news and misinformation demands witness

Yesterday, I listened to this story from NPR’s Morning Edition about how election officials in the US are preparing for scenarios in which they are compelled to react to misinformation campaigns designed to confuse and complicate matters in the upcoming 2024 elections.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST: For the upcoming 2024 elections, the state of Arizona is using artificial intelligence to head off interference from artificial intelligence. The state became a hotbed of misinformation and conspiracy theories about the last general election. So Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes, a Democrat, is leading the efforts to curb AI-manufactured deceptions by testing some worst-case Election Day scenarios.

ADRIAN FONTES: For example, a polling place might catch on fire or phone lines might go down. And so what we do is we are really testing how it is that our elections officials, emergency responders, law enforcement, intelligence gatherers and all of the sort – state, federal and local – will act and work together in case of any weird situations that might happen during our election cycle.

MARTÍNEZ: The tests used generative AI to fake the voices of the Secretary of State and others in his office who gave their consent…

Seeing officials prepare for this very credible threat gave me comfort. It makes me wonder to what extent other public institutions should work through these worst-case scenarios before they happen.

It is very likely that in 2024, we are going to see chaos caused by credible-looking machine-generated vocals and video designed by bad actors and spread by social media. What can we do now to help us in this future?

One thing I would like to see is to have more reporters in the room to confirm or deny statements made by officials. As I wrote earlier this week, a very useful strategy to determine the veracity of a claim is to search laterally for confirmation from other sources.

A strong democracy relies on Canadians having access to diverse and reliable sources of news and information so that they can form opinions, hold governments and individuals to account and participate in public debate. In response to the increase in false, misleading and inflammatory disinformation published online and through social media, the Government of Canada has made it a priority to help equip citizens with the tools and skills needed to critically assess online information.

Digital Citizen Initiative – Online disinformation and other online harms and threats,

Unfortunately, despite employing about a third of all journalists in Canada, the CBC will receive only seven percent of the money paid by Google as part of compliance with the recent Online News Act. In December, the CBC announced that the crown corporation plans to cut 10 per cent of its workforce — about 600 union and non-union positions — in response to its potential $125 million budget shortfall.

It is beyond my comprehension why the current government would literally decimate our most reliable source of journalism is this time of a urgent need. And it is beyond the scope of this post for me to suggest to you an viable alternative for journalism in Canada because even citizen reporters need to be compensated for their time and work.

Detroit Documenters has trained more than 400 people since the site started in 2018 with support from Citizen Detroit and WDET. It’s now run by Outlier Media with eight other media partners, and about 70 documenters routinely take assignments, said Herndon, who coordinates Detroit Documenters with Noah Kincade. 

In Detroit, documenters make $18 an hour, which typically equates to $63 per assignment – assuming the meeting takes two hours and the documenter spends time doing research in advance and editing the notes afterward. 

“You provide a valuable service and you should be paid,” Herndon said, noting that the monthly pay is not equivalent to a salary but it’s enough to keep people invested in the assignments. She said the pay made a difference in her life when she was looking for work in 2019 and started as a documenter. 

“On Record: The Rise of Citizen Journalism in the United States” by Lauren Slagter, Narrative Initative, 08 November, 2023:

I recognize that a re-investment in journalism alone will not be enough to curb misinformation that is often spread in channels like WhatsApp or other apps out of the public’s eye. For example, last year the City of Essex was completely surprised by the sudden arrival of hundreds of angry protesters disrupting their council meeting over an issue that wasn’t even on the agenda.

Debunking the 15-minute-city conspiracy theory — and why it erupted at Essex County council
Hundreds showed up at an April County of Essex meeting — many of them concerned about 15-minute cities
Katerina Georgieva · CBC News · Posted: Apr 17, 2023 4:00 AM EDT | Last Updated: April 17, 2023

In 2016, I read and enjoyed the book, Writing on Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years by Tom Standage. The work’s thesis is that for most of human history, news has been largely been passed on, person to person and that it is mass media which may prove to be the real historical anomaly.

Today we equate media with conglomerates and moguls: Time Warner, Viacom, Rupert. But far more representative in media history may have been Cic­ero, who like other upper-class Romans got his news on papyrus rolls that were copied, annotated and passed from person to person. Speeches, books, even personal letters were read aloud by slaves and sent on to friends and acquaintances. This distribution system made early media social; by sharing in this fashion, people were able to do what people do in such situations: signal their interests, define their personas and strengthen their ties with others.

Word Travels Fast, Frank Rose, November 1, 2023, The New York Times,

Nothing has changed. Someone needs to be in the room when it happens. Someone needs to bare witness. This also brings strange comfort.

One response to “The flood of machine-generated news and misinformation demands witness”

  1. I find it laughable that the Canadian government claims they are going to “help equip citizens with the tools and skills needed to critically assess online information”, when they just passed a law that disincentivizes search engines & social media platforms from linking to credible Canadian news sources.

    The government is accomplishing the opposite here & they are doing so after tech industry experts told them this would happen.

    No, I don’t place much hope on government solutions. Because we may end up in a situation where parties & politicians who most use & benefit from AI disinformation, win power – and we all know they never shoot the golden goose.

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