Fake Joe Biden is Malarkey
A fake robocall from “Joe Biden” went out this week, telling NH primary voters to stay home
“What a bunch of malarkey!” This is the first line in the script from a fake Joe Biden robocall that was out in the field in New Hampshire this week. The call encourages Democratic voters to stay home and save their votes for when it counted in November. We don’t yet know how many voters received the call, what universe of voters was targeted, or who was behind it. Only that law enforcement is now investigating.
You can listen to the call, which approximates Biden’s voice reasonably well. It probably wouldn’t fool anyone listening closely, but if I heard it while cooking dinner between errands or dealing with my kids, I might have believed it was real.
Since the news broke, most of the conversation has focused on AI and the emerging technology angle. It makes sense, especially in light of OpenAI’s recent announcement that it won’t allow its tech to be used for political campaigning. Part of the company’s effort to prevent the platform from being used to spread disinformation. (A policy OpenAI has already begun enforcing.) There are renewed calls from politicians and policymakers to regulate AI. Here in Washington State, where I live, local election officials used the news as an opportunity to remind voters that Washington just passed a law to combat the use of AI-generated voices and images in political communications.
However, I found the call's content far more interesting than the tools used to create it. It was such a throwback to some of the Russian disinformation we saw in 2016, the images and memes encouraging voters to save time and text their vote to a (fake) short code instead of heading to their polling place to cast a ballot. The content then and now was intended to depress turnout. As is often the case, the technology has changed, but the strategies and tactics have not.
Actually, it feels like a stretch to say that the technology has changed. The same platforms that plagued us in 2016 are still going strong and still allowing disinformation and conspiracies in political ads. Wired’s David Gilbert followed the activity on one of New Hampshire’s largest election denial Facebook groups on primary day and concluded that “If the activity of the New Hampshire Voter Integrity Group on primary day—when Trump won decisively—is any indicator, the election in November is going to be much worse.”
With more than 50 countries holding elections, 2024 is shaping up to be a global shitstorm of election-related disinformation, threats, and online toxicity. Generative AI as a tool for bad actors is yet another problem in a mounting pile of setbacks, including tech companies rolling back their policies on disinformation and hate speech, backlash and political attacks against social media researchers, Elon Musk, and how commonplace threats and harassment have become.
This week, as we learned of even more newsroom layoffs, I also realized that, at least in the US, the disinformation/extremism beat won’t be covered as well as it was in the past few election cycles. Buzzfeed News is gone, and most of the outlets that cover these issues well have laid off reporters and scaled back their coverage significantly. Several reporters, I used to talk to regularly about election disinformation and related issues no longer cover it or have left journalism entirely.
I’m glad that the fake Biden robocall has set off alarm bells and reminded folks election interference is still an issue. I’m also glad that OpenAI has taken a step that none of the legacy platforms ever would -- admitting its platforms can be used to manipulate elections and attempting to curb the potential for abuse. If fears of AI are what it takes to get people talking about disinformation, threats, and elections again, I’m all for it. Let’s just also remember that AI is one tool in the toolbox, and the underlying problem of election interference remains.
I think this piece explains both enthusiasm for Trump and why folks online can often perceive that Joe Biden is less popular than he is. Personally, I find a culture where everything is being turned into a fandom exhausting, even as I recognize my own small role in creating this culture in politics in the first place. It’s a lot to unpack.
For those of us still obsessing over these cases and the DOJ’s progress in bringing insurrectionists to justice.
‘America Is Under Attack’: Inside the Anti-D.E.I. Crusade (New York Times)
It was so unexpected to learn that the anti-DEI crusaders are incredibly racist, sexist, homophobic, generally bigoted, and dumb enough to express all of these beliefs in their emails. Who could have guessed that one?
I had to read this one two or three times because I kept telling myself it couldn’t be true. Surely, I was missing something. Sadly that is not the case.
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That’s all for now. Talk to you next Sunday!