It’s difficult to predict exactly how AI is going to transform society, in part because we are limited in our ability to foresee what the technology will look like. One thing we do know, however, is that deepfakes are already here, and they will get better and cheaper to produce over time. Here’s one of Elon Musk supposedly being used in a cryptocurrency ad. And here is a video demonstrating that you can now create content that can plausibly pass for the real thing.
This means that it’s probably not too early to start speculating about how this particular AI technology will affect our politics.
Unsurprisingly, the rise of deepfakes has unleashed something of a panic about the future of democracy. What happens when malicious actors can create video or audio of anyone saying anything? It seems plausible to think that this could lead to a breakdown in trust, increasing nihilism, and an undermining of the shared reality necessary for society to function.
Maybe. But I’m more inclined to think cheap and convincing deepfakes will have the opposite impact, increasing the power and prestige of established institutions and discrediting most threats to their power. At the same time, the new technology will have negative effects on an impressionable minority of the public, that is, the same group of people that already falls for fake news.
A mistake people make when forecasting the impact of technology is that they fail to take into account the fact that people adjust to new realities. For example, as the internet has taken off and society has become more tech savvy, thieves are having to get more sophisticated in order to scam people. In the early days of the internet, people were more likely to believe anything they saw online. Some still fall for scams, but the population as a whole is a lot less naive on these things than it was two decades ago. This is why I don’t believe that convincing chatbots are going to replace real life relationships, except perhaps among the most isolated and lonely, or that AI is going to replace Hollywood.
A good analogy for thinking about the likely impact of deepfakes comes from how things currently work with text. Imagine that tomorrow on this Substack I release an interview with Barack Obama, in which he says “You know, Richard, one thing a lot of folks don’t realize is that my administration was based on a synthesis of Bolshevik and New Left principles, but you really need to kill a lot of rednecks to make it work, and unfortunately we couldn’t manage to pull that off.” What would your reaction be? I think you would assume I was writing a parody, or I was just making things up to embarrass Obama. Maybe I’m doing it to get him to denounce me, which would increase my fame and influence.
Now imagine the same thing appearing in The New York Times. Even if you distrust the paper, you generally don’t believe they invent quotes out of thin air. I don’t either, but the NYT has more reputational capital to maintain. If the Obama quote came from MAGAMom_1776 on Twitter, you would dismiss it completely, as would everyone else.
The point of all this is that we’re already in the “deepfake” world of text. People decide what to trust exclusively based on the credibility of the source.
In the era of deepfakes, people will know deepfakes exist, meaning that individuals will become much less likely to believe random audio and video they see online. If you hear Biden making a gaffe, whether you believe it or not will depend on if it came from a credible reporter with backing from a well-respected institution. I find myself already beginning to doubt less reputable Twitter accounts showing embarrassing footage of their political enemies without outside confirmation.
What if you’re an independent journalist who happens to get exclusive audio of a world leader plotting a coup? Without a way to verify that the audio is legitimate, your work will be ignored.
Prestige journalists will themselves have to be more cautious. Before, one could send an anonymous video to a reporter and they would broadcast it to the world. Now, with credible deepfakes, major news outlets only believe what people they know tell them, or what they hear or see themselves. Official campaigns and government agencies will become more important as sources of information. Again, the power of independent journalists will decline. This is not simply because fewer people will be able to trust their work, but also because more established outlets will be less likely to rely on non-traditional sources of information.
In sum, cheap and easily available deepfakes will cause most people to adopt a reasonable prior of “everything I see or hear on the internet is fake, unless it comes from a credible news source.” That’s already the standard for text, so there’s no reason it can’t also apply to audio and video.
Note that I said most people will adopt this prior. Today, many of our fellow citizens already fall for “deepfake” text. There’s a website called Real Raw News that appears to be very popular. Here’s what the front page looks like right now.
You’re probably thinking this must be parody, but I promise you it’s real. Here’s an article claiming that the military has arrested Lori Lightfoot, and it has 1,095 comments, which rivals opinion pieces released by the NYT, and these people appear to really believe what they’re reading.
The NYT, CNN, and The Washington Post certainly reach more people, but Real Raw News is definitely influential, as are other fake news sites, among an important subset of the population.
The RRN crowd tends to be composed of those that are low IQ and have low levels of trust in institutions. This is Trump’s base, in case you are wondering why they dislike DeSantis so much. With education polarization being what it is, fake news tends to be a right-wing problem. Liberals can of course buy into false narratives, but they tend to be stupid in the way smart or at least moderately intelligent people are, which is through being blinded by ideology. Dumb people, in contrast, don’t have the mental tools to distinguish between real events and what they find in the National Enquirer, or a story about Fauci being executed at Gitmo, and this is why anti-vaxx, QAnon, and election denial are all found among Republicans, or to be more precise, the Trumpist base of the party. The low IQ can avoid the fake news trap by simply trusting institutions, and this is why stupid people in the Democratic coalition don’t create their own equivalents of outlets like RRN.
All of this means that the fake news problem on the right is probably going to get a lot worse. Liberals will become more trusting of the MSM and other established institutions. This will also be true of more intelligent conservatives, who will stick to credible news sources for their facts even as they hold on to their tribal and ideological commitments. But a large portion of the Republican base will be sharing deep fakes of Trump fighting off space aliens and rounding up pedophiles, and that will become their reality. Electorally, this will benefit the left, since most people don’t share the low IQ-low trust combination, just as how today your average normie believes CBS over RRN.
Intelligent conservatives will find themselves having to dog whistle and otherwise appeal to their RRN base, just like they do now with anti-vaxxers. In some cases, the low IQ-low trust combination makes its way into positions of power and influence. We already see lawmakers and major right-wing influencers praising the Died Suddenly movie, which is as fake as almost anything you would see on RRN.
The 2022 election showed what happens when Republicans become too enthralled with the RRN base. Even if taking the position that 2020 was stolen doesn’t matter to most voters, the false narrative of election denial energized an unusually unappealing kind of politician. For example, the Republicans got crushed in Michigan, and turned around and made their mentally unstable failed secretary of state candidate the new chair of the state party. She manages to combine the off-putting aggressiveness usually associated with the Democratic urban base with extreme and unpopular conservative positions on abortion.
The lack of course correction on the Republican side is another result of being the low IQ party. We’ve rarely if ever seen a major party in an advanced western democracy so devoid of an intellectual leadership class, which means we can’t predict how bad things will get. It’s a vicious cycle, as stupidity leads to bad decision making, which further alienates intelligent people, thus reducing the average IQ of the party. Deepfakes will exacerbate this problem.
The RRN crowd can expect to become increasingly radicalized. Now they simply read fake news about Satanic pedophiles or people dying suddenly after getting vaccinated. Seeing videos of such things will drive many of them over the edge. An increase in stochastic terrorism is a real possibility, though this would only serve to further alienate RRN types from the public and lead to even more trust in the MSM and Democratic victories.
One thing that intelligent conservatives might consider doing is distracting these people by helping to create an alternative reality for them in which they can do less harm. Make deep fakes of Trump explaining to his followers how they don’t have to vote in Republican primaries and why they should stay out of electoral politics altogether. You can even tell them that they no longer need to pay attention to the news because Trump has been anointed president for life, and even if the real Trump stands up and says no that didn’t happen, I still need you to donate and vote for me, the RRN crowd may not be able to figure out which Trump is the hologram. Some will go with real Trump, others with the AI version, but at least you can hope to split the movement. They appear to have an infatuation with JFK Jr., and one can perhaps distract the Q crowd with gripping biopics starring dead celebrities from when they were young.
This probably won’t be tried though. Conservatives who should know better have shown themselves more inclined to submit to the RRN demographic than confront it, and this kind of rule by mob on the political right will probably continue. The most likely outcome of deepfakes is therefore to be more trust in the MSM and established institutions, an acceleration of educational polarization, the further QAnonization of the right, and ultimately more Democratic victories.
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