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 US 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.
As political scientists like Paul Pierson have pointed out, what happens between elections is important to democracy. Politicians shape policies and they make laws. And citizens can approve or condemn what politicians are doing, through contacting their representatives or commenting on proposed rules.
That’s what should happen. But as the New York report shows, it often doesn’t. 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.
Take Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3, or GPT-3, an AI model created by OpenAI, a San Francisco based start-up. With minimal prompting, GPT-3 can generate convincing seeming newspaper articles, résumé cover letters, even Harry Potter fan fiction in the style of Ernest Hemingway. It is trivially easy to use these techniques to compose large numbers of public comments or letters to lawmakers.
OpenAI restricts access to GPT-3, but in a recent experiment, researchers used a different text-generation program to submit 1,000 comments in response to a government request for public input on a Medicaid issue. They all sounded unique, like real people advocating a specific policy position. They fooled the Medicaid.gov administrators, who accepted them as genuine concerns from actual human beings. The researchers subsequently identified the comments and asked for them to be removed, so that no actual policy debate would be unfairly biased. Others won’t be so ethical.
When the floodgates open, democratic speech is in danger of drowning beneath a tide of fake letters and comments, tweets and Facebook posts. The danger isn’t just that fake support can be generated for unpopular positions, as happened with net neutrality. It is that public commentary will be completely discredited. This would be bad news for specialist AstroTurf companies, which would have no business model if there isn’t a public that they can pretend to be representing. But it would empower still further other kinds of lobbyists, who at least can prove that they are who they say they are.
We may have a brief window to shore up the flood walls. The most effective response would be to regulate what UCLA sociologist Edward Walker has described as the “grassroots for hire” industry. Organizations that deliberately fabricate citizen voices shouldn’t just be subject to civil fines, but to criminal penalties. Businesses that hire these organizations should be held liable for failures of oversight. It’s impossible to prove or disprove whether telecommunications companies knew their subcontractors would create bogus citizen voices, but a liability standard would at least give such companies an incentive to find out. This is likely to be politically difficult to put in place, though, since so many powerful actors benefit from the status quo.
This essay was written with Henry Farrell, and previously appeared in the Washington Post.
EDITED TO ADD: Another essay on the same topic.
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