Election and Deep Fakes

On January 23, an icon of Tamil cinema and politics, M Karunanidhi appeared before a live audience on a large projected screen, to congratulate his 82-year-old friend and fellow politician TR Baalu on the launch of his autobiographical book.

Dressed in his trademark black sunglasses, white shirt, and a yellow shawl around his shoulders— Karunanidhi’s style was spot on. In his eight-minute speech, the veteran poet-turned-politician congratulated the book’s author but was also effusive in his praise for the able leadership of MK Stalin, his son and the current leader of the state.

Karunanidhi has been dead since 2018.

This was the third time, in the past six months, that the popular leader of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) party was resurrected using artificial intelligence (AI) for such public events.

“When the COVID pandemic ravaged the world, our Chief Minister ran in the direction of panicked voices of people,” Karunanidhi said. “The nation knows the way you fought to save the lives of people, and so do I.”

Senthil Nayagam, founder of Muonium, the AI media tech firm that made the deep fake of Karunanidhi video, told Al Jazeera that “there is a market opening up [for such deep fakes]…. You can attribute some statements to a particular person and that kind of gives more value to it”.

AI Karunanidhi’s first public appearance was at a local media event last year in September, which was followed up by another for a campaign by his party members. The resurrected leader often felicitates party workers and specifically praises the leadership of his son MK Stalin —with the aim of boosting his popularity.

At the January book launch, AI Karunanidhi recounted everything from pardoning student debt and cash giveaways for the poor, to female-friendly policies and roping in investments—a list of his son’s achievements over the years that had propelled the state forward.

Karunanidhi’s last public interview was in 2016, before his voice turned coarse, and his body frail. Nayagam used publicly available data of Karunanidhi to train a speech model and recreated the 1990s likeness of the leader when he was much younger. The script for the prerecorded AI speech was supplied by the local DMK cadre, and was vetted by party personnel.

As per local media reports, the reaction to these AI videos has prompted the DMK party leadership to think of creating AI Karunanidhi campaign speeches in the ensuing 2024 parliamentary election campaign.

But it has also raised some troubling ethical and legal questions: The use of AI to create synthetic audio and video by a living person who has signed off on the content is one thing. It is quite another to resurrect a dead person and ascribe opinions to them.

But the genie is already out of the bottle. According to Diggaj Mogra, director of Jarvis Consulting, one of India’s largest political consultancies, AI-facilitated content marketing for elections campaigns, including outbound voice calls and SMS, avatar creation, personalised media outreach, and AI-created multilingual creatives on social media is an estimated $60m market opportunity in India this election year.

Globally, over 60 countries are set to hold national elections in 2024, and the possible misuse of artificial intelligence to influence public opinion has caused a moral panic, turning into a global hot-button issue.

[Contributed by Nilesh Christopher of Al Jazeera]

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Vol 56, No. 44, Apr 28 - May 4, 2024