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Deepfakes and Democracy

A DEEPFAKE IS A piece of media: a photograph, an audio clip, a video that has been synthetically generated using computational power to provide a convincing depiction of a well-known person making a statement or action that is damaging to themselves, their reputation or their platform.
Deepfakes and Democracy

by Clare Penketh

HALF THE WORLD'S DEMOCRACIES, INCLUDING the UK, head for the polls this year and deepfakes are adding a new dimension to telling fact from fiction during elections.

So, could the proliferation of deepfake technology pose a significant threat to democratic processes?

Claire Penketh, former journalist, now a policy expert for a tech charity has written this article in a personal capacity.

Illustration reprinted by kind permission of Sven Mastbooms (Kindred Spirits)

At a recent conference I attended on technology and democracy, one of the standout figures that stuck in my mind was this – in 2018 there were about 7500 deepfakes.

Now, according to Henry Ajder, a generative AI expert, over the past two years there’s been a 'skyrocketing' of deepfakes to an eye-popping SIXTEEN BILLION circulating on the internet and other platforms.
Henry Ajder

However, interestingly he also added that it's extremely hard to quantify their impact on elections and democracy because official research is currently extremely limited.

All will become clearer once the elections are over, and the data can be collated and analysed.

I recently hosted a webinar on deepfakes for the charity I work for, BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.

Tom Bristow, a tech reporter for the news site Politico told me he was cautious about whether deep fakes will impact elections:

“Obviously we have seen this happen in elections already around the world already, and there are plenty of warnings.

“But making a deepfake and making it count are two different things. We have to be careful not to confuse the two, just because it's easy to do.

“It doesn't mean it's going to swing an election. And so far, I think like we struggle to point to examples where elections have been widely influenced by a deep fake.”

Impact on Democracy

THERE IS UNEASE ABOUT THE impact of deepfakes. A recent survey of BCS members showed that 65% thought deepfakes are very likely to influence the results of the coming General Election.

Deepfakes a major risk for the General Election, according to research with the tech profession | BCS
The influence of AI deepfakes on the UK General Election is a concern for most tech experts, according to a new survey.

Deep fakes are comparatively easy to make, and cheap too.

Take the case of the comedian who made a deepfake audio of the US President, Joe Biden, which was sent out in an automated call. It took him 20 minutes to produce on software that cost a few dollars, and the story went viral.

We’ve seen a proliferation of deepfakes here too. Prior to the calling of the snap election, a report by Fenimore Harper Communications  found that over a 100 deepfake video advertisements impersonating Rishi Sunak were paid for to be promoted on Meta’s platforms in January alone.

These ads may have reached over 400,000 people, despite explicitly breaking several of Meta’s ad policies.

The funding for the ads, in this instance, came from 23 different countries.
Over 100 Deep-Faked Rishi Sunak Ads Found on Meta’s Platform — Fenimore Harper Communications
Over 100 deep-fake video advertisements impersonating Prime Minister Rishi Sunak were paid to be promoted on Meta’s platform in the last month.

Disillusioned Voters

Lisa Forte, a Cyber Security expert also told me on the webinar that one of the most insidious effects of deepfakes is their potential to disillusion voters:

“It's important to remember that it's not necessarily about swinging someone to vote from Labour to Conservative or vice versa.

It can also be the demobilisation of voters, and we've seen that become very evident in a lot of countries where people have just got to a point where they just thought, ‘well, I'm not going to vote’ and that can also have a huge effect”.
By creating confusion and doubt, malicious actors can make voters feel that participating in the electoral process is pointless.

This disengagement can significantly alter election outcomes, as lower voter turnout often benefits certain parties over others.

This does not bode well at a time when, certainly in the UK, the public are already sceptical about the UK’s politicians and the electoral system. Trust in politicians has fallen to a record low, according to a report for the National Centre for Social Research.

Sir John Curtice: Damaged politics sees voter trust at record low
New research finds voters “almost never” trust politicians to tell the truth or put the UK first.

Education is part of the answer

ANOTHER SPEAKER ON THE WEBINAR, HANNAH PERRY FROM THE think tank Demos agrees deepfakes have the potential to disillusion and demobilise voters.

Hannah stressed that understanding and managing these threats requires more than just technological solutions; it involves equipping the public, particularly the younger generation, with the skills to critically assess and navigate digital information.

These should be taught in all schools as part of personal, social, health and economic lessons she said:

“The question for me is whether we're thinking deep enough about how we're educating young people in our schools around this issue.

“Without this the integrity of democratic processes is at risk, as citizens may struggle to distinguish between real and fake content, leading to widespread misinformation and manipulation.”

Ethical and Technical Solutions

ADDRESSING THE THREAT OF deepfakes requires a multifaceted approach that includes both ethical and technical solutions.

The BCS survey I referred to earlier highlighted that public education and technical measures like watermarking and labelling AI-generated content are crucial.

Watermarking the future
Policymakers love watermarks almost as much as they hate deepfakes. Will DC’s favorite solution hold up to the hype?

Meanwhile, technical solutions can make it easier to identify and flag fake content. However, these measures alone are not sufficient; they must be part of a broader strategy that includes robust regulatory frameworks and industry cooperation.

Meta requires political advertisers to mark when deepfakes used
Advertisers will have to make clear when they use AI in political ads on the social media platforms.

Political parties and a charter against fake news

ONE OF THE IDEAS FLOATED BEFORE THE election was for political parties to sign a charter committing not to amplify fake news about their opponents.

According to the BCS survey, 92% of IT professionals support this idea.

Such a charter would require parties to disclose how they use AI in their campaigns and to take responsibility for preventing the spread of disinformation.

This initiative could play a critical role in maintaining the integrity of elections and ensuring that political discourse remains rooted in truth.

It would also set a standard for ethical behaviour in the digital age, demonstrating a commitment to fair play and transparency.

The rise of deepfakes represents a formidable challenge to democracies worldwide

AS THE TECHNOLOGY CONTINUES to evolve, it is crucial for governments, tech companies, and civil society to work together to combat its misuse.

There needs to be a proactive approach, including public education, technical solutions, and ethical commitments from political parties.

By taking these steps, there’s a chance we can safeguard our democratic processes and ensure that voters can make informed decisions based on accurate information.

However, it remains to be seen if that will reverse the deep scepticism of voters in politicians and the electoral system, regardless of deepfakes.

But wait… there's more


Prabowo Subianto has recently been elected as president of the Indonesian government. He has managed to obscure his controversial past through the use of a cartoon avatar created using generative AI dubbed "gemoy" (cute and cuddly) that has a signature shuffle and has captured the hearts of the largely under-40s population.

Prabowo Subianto: Indonesia’s ‘cuddly grandpa’ with a bloody past
Once dogged by kidnapping and torture allegations, Prabowo Subianto is now Indonesia’s frontrunner.

IN THE 2024 UK GENERAL ELECTION AN AI is standing for Parliament to represent Brighton Pavilion.

There’s an AI Candidate Running for Parliament in the UK
If it wins the UK general election, “AI Steve” will be represented by businessman Steve Endacott in Parliament. Endacott says he’ll merely be a conduit, and the AI will make the policy decisions.

AI Steve is the project of Steven Endacott who together with NeuralVoice has created an AI that he promises will be used to make decisions on the basis of public consultation.

The AI can hold up to 10,000 conversations simultaneously and will build up its own internal policy database from interactions with the public.

Home - AI Steve
Smarter UK will recruit locals to create policies (Creators) and commuters from Brighton Station to score these policies (Validators). Policies meeting the

IN 2020 INDIAN POLITICIAN MANOJ TIWARI COLLABORATED with communications firm The Ideaz Factory to use deepfake lip-synching techniques to translate videos of their speeches into other dialects and languages in order to reach more voters from minority backgrounds.

An Indian politician used AI to translate his speech into other languages to reach more voters
How intentionally faked videos might affect US elections is unclear

Click here to read the report from the Centre for Policy StudiesClick here to read the report from the Centre for Policy Studies

Claire Penketh has worked as a journalist mostly for the BBC in local and international news, as well as stints as a freelancer at Stroud Life.

Five years ago she pivoted careers and is now working as a senior policy and public affairs manager for the professional body for technology, BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.

You can find Clare Penketh on LinkedIn