Gov. DeSantis’ embrace of deepfake videos will come back to bite him | Editorial
The governor’s presidential campaign used fake images of Donald Trump with Anthony Fauci.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump.
Gov. Ron DeSantis and former President Donald Trump. [ ALEX BRANDON | AP ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published June 22

Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign clearly considers voters to be fools, or at least deserving of being treated as such. How else to explain the campaign’s eager dive earlier this month into the technological sewer of “deepfakes”?

As part of a campaign video attacking former President Donald Trump, the Florida governor’s election staff posted three images on Twitter of Trump embracing Anthony Fauci, a much-reviled figure on the right because of his work during the COVID pandemic. Experts say the images are almost certainly fakes, creations of artificial intelligence.

DeSantis’ willingness to open this Pandora’s box of deception for the 2024 presidential race has disturbing implications for voters, who will need to pay even closer attention than usual to what candidates tell or show them. Many politicians are willing to deceive. DeSantis just proved it with the phony images. But artificial intelligence is a powerful new tool for misinformation, and while most deepfakes still aren’t perfect, the technology is quickly improving.

That is very bad news for democracy.

Deepfakes, according to the U.S. government, are video, photo or audio recordings that seem real but have been manipulated by artificial intelligence, also known as AI. AI programs can change faces, alter expressions and synthesize speech. They are most commonly used to make it look like people are saying or doing something they never did.

Does anyone else see a problem here?

The phony images are put together by artificial neural networks, computer systems that recognize patterns in data. If you feed neural networks enough images, they can be trained to recognize and reconstruct patterns — most often faces. The U.S. Government Accountability Office says much deepfake content online is pornographic and victimizes women. But experts worry it can and will be used to influence elections or incite civil unrest.

“This is the big information security problem of the 21st century,” Matthew Stamm, a Drexel University professor of electrical and computer engineering, told The New York Times after reviewing the images of Fauci.

Henry Farid, a University of California professor, told the Times such tactics will proliferate.

“We will continue to see campaigns, state-sponsored actors, trolls and people who want to sow chaos use these fake images to drive their own agendas,” said Farid, who noted that technology experts are starting to systematically review campaign materials in search of deepfakes.

Good for them, and for us. If left unchecked, deepfakes are likely to make voters even more cynical about elections, if that’s possible.

They can no longer believe video, which used to be the gold standard for accuracy. And politicians can just cry “fake” even when the video is real, throwing the very concept of objective truth into doubt.

In a bit of irony, the Times reports that even MAGA Republicans — most of whom despise Fauci — are upset about the use of fake images in the DeSantis ad, though most, it should be noted, spent more time defending the ad’s target than denouncing the tactic.

“Smearing Donald Trump with fake AI images is completely unacceptable,” Sen. J.D. Vance, an Ohio Republican, wrote on Twitter.

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Officials with the DeSantis campaign are defending their use of phony images by claiming they were obvious fakes, and no different than clearly photoshopped memes of DeSantis circulated by Trump and his allies. Experts strongly disagree.

One thing is clear: It was the DeSantis campaign that broke the deepfake taboo. The governor should probably assume that what goes around will be coming around soon — and is likely to slap him in the face.

A few months ago, DeSantis was the target of rumors that he was seen eating chocolate pudding with his fingers (We are not making this up). A Trump-backed group then produced an ad hitting DeSantis for “sticking his fingers where they don’t belong,” citing his vote when he was in Congress in favor of privatizing Social Security and raising the retirement age. The ad included video of a man digging his fingers into a plastic cup of chocolate pudding and eating it.

The man did not resemble DeSantis. This time.

Welcome to your brave new world, governor.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.