Presidential campaign season is officially, officially, upon us now, which means it’s time to confront the weird and insidious ways in which technology is warping politics. One of the biggest threats on the horizon: artificial personas are coming, and they’re poised to take over political debate. The risk arises from two separate threads coming together: artificial intelligence-driven text generation and social media chatbots. These computer-generated “people” will drown out actual human discussions on the Internet.
Text-generation software is already good enough to fool most people most of the time. It’s writing news stories, particularly in sports and finance. It’s talking with customers on merchant websites. It’s writing convincing op-eds on topics in the news (though there are limitations). And it’s being used to bulk up “pink-slime journalism” — websites meant to appear like legitimate local news outlets but that publish propaganda instead.
There’s a record of algorithmic content pretending to be from individuals, as well. In 2017, the Federal Communications Commission had an online public-commenting period for its plans to repeal net neutrality. A staggering 22 million comments were received. Many of them — maybe half — were fake, using stolen identities. These comments were also crude; 1.3 million were generated from the same template, with some words altered to make them appear unique. They didn’t stand up to even cursory scrutiny.
These efforts will only get more sophisticated. In a recent experiment, Harvard senior Max Weiss used a text-generation program to create 1,000 comments in response to a government call on a Medicaid issue. These comments were all unique, and sounded like real people advocating for a specific policy position. They fooled the Medicaid.gov administrators, who accepted them as genuine concerns from actual human beings. This being research, Weiss subsequently identified the comments and asked for them to be removed, so that no actual policy debate would be unfairly biased. The next group to try this won’t be so honorable.
Chatbots have been skewing social-media discussions for years. About a fifth of all tweets about the 2016 presidential election were published by bots, according to one estimate, as were about a third of all tweets about that year’s Brexit vote. An Oxford Internet Institute report from last year found evidence of bots being used to spread propaganda in 50 countries. These tended to be simple programs mindlessly repeating slogans: a quarter million pro-Saudi “We all have trust in Mohammed bin Salman” tweets following the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, for example. Detecting many bots with a few followers each is harder than detecting a few bots with lots of followers. And measuring the effectiveness of these bots is difficult. The best analyses indicate that they did not affect the 2016 US presidential election. More likely, they distort people’s sense of public sentiment and their faith in reasoned political debate. We are all in the middle of a novel social experiment.
Over the years, algorithmic bots have evolved to have personas. They have fake names, fake bios, and fake photos — sometimes generated by AI. Instead of endlessly spewing propaganda, they post only occasionally. Researchers can detect that these are bots and not people, based on their patterns of posting, but the bot technology is getting better all the time, outpacing tracking attempts. Future groups won’t be so easily identified. They’ll embed themselves in human social groups better. Their propaganda will be subtle, and interwoven in tweets about topics relevant to those social groups.
Combine these two trends and you have the recipe for nonhuman chatter to overwhelm actual political speech.
Soon, AI-driven personas will be able to write personalized letters to newspapers and elected officials, submit individual comments to public rule-making processes, and intelligently debate political issues on social media. They will be able to comment on social-media posts, news sites, and elsewhere, creating persistent personas that seem real even to someone scrutinizing them. They will be able to pose as individuals on social media and send personalized texts. They will be replicated in the millions and engage on the issues around the clock, sending billions of messages, long and short. Putting all this together, they’ll be able to drown out any actual debate on the Internet. Not just on social media, but everywhere there’s commentary.
Maybe these persona bots will be controlled by foreign actors. Maybe it’ll be domestic political groups. Maybe it’ll be the candidates themselves. Most likely, it’ll be everybody. The most important lesson from the 2016 election about misinformation isn’t that misinformation occurred; it is how cheap and easy misinforming people was. Future technological improvements will make it all even more affordable.
Our future will consist of boisterous political debate, mostly bots arguing with other bots. This is not what we think of when we laud the marketplace of ideas, or any democratic political process. Democracy requires two things to function properly: information and agency. Artificial personas can starve people of both.
Solutions are hard to imagine. We can regulate the use of bots — a proposed California law would require bots to identify themselves — but that is effective only against legitimate influence campaigns, such as advertising. Surreptitious influence operations will be much harder to detect. The most obvious defense is to develop and standardize better authentication methods. If social networks verify that an actual person is behind each account, then they can better weed out fake personas. But fake accounts are already regularly created for real people without their knowledge or consent, and anonymous speech is essential for robust political debate, especially when speakers are from disadvantaged or marginalized communities. We don’t have an authentication system that both protects privacy and scales to the billions of users.
We can hope that our ability to identify artificial personas keeps up with our ability to disguise them. If the arms race between deep fakes and deep-fake detectors is any guide, that’ll be hard as well. The technologies of obfuscation always seem one step ahead of the technologies of detection. And artificial personas will be designed to act exactly like real people.
In the end, any solutions have to be nontechnical. We have to recognize the limitations of online political conversation, and again prioritize face-to-face interactions. These are harder to automate, and we know the people we’re talking with are actual people. This would be a cultural shift away from the internet and text, stepping back from social media and comment threads. Today that seems like a completely unrealistic solution.
Misinformation efforts are now common around the globe, conducted in more than 70 countries. This is the normal way to push propaganda in countries with authoritarian leanings, and it’s becoming the way to run a political campaign, for either a candidate or an issue.
Artificial personas are the future of propaganda. And while they may not be effective in tilting debate to one side or another, they easily drown out debate entirely. We don’t know the effect of that noise on democracy, only that it’ll be pernicious, and that it’s inevitable.
This essay previously appeared in TheAtlantic.com.
EDITED TO ADD: Jamie Susskind wrote a similar essay.
EDITED TO ADD (3/16): This essay has been translated into Spanish.
EDITED TO ADD (6/4): This essay has been translated into Portuguese.