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AI-content interfered in Turkish elections

The lack of objective, independent media is fertile ground for the emergence of masterful election fakes on social networks (photo: CC0 Public Domain)

Now that the Turkish elections are a fact, we can talk about what they set a precedent for: the influence of AI-content. Misleading, generated by artificial intelligence, it can turn voter attitudes, AI experts say. Turkey’s presidential election on Sunday is the first major election to face this challenge.

Turkish netizens were surprised to find Kemal Kulçdaroğlu, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s main challenger in Sunday’s election, speaking perfect English in a video posted online just over two weeks ago. But shortly after it appeared, independent Turkish fact-checking website Teyit revealed that the video was fabricated by AI. According to Teyit, which means “confirmation” in Turkish, the video was generated by AI and was not intended to mislead anyone.

“I am constantly experimenting with AI to learn about new functionalities. I created Kemal Kulçdaroğlu’s voice through AI and used it for an English version of his candidacy speech,” said @ytc06, the first Twitter user to share the video with his 11 followers. However, it spread like a virus.

The boom in generative AIs and the free access to them is giving rise to similar situations, according to master forgery expert Henry Ider. “When something meant to be a joke is taken out of context, it can be mistaken for something real, especially if you’re talking to an audience that has certain biases,” Ayder told Euronews Next. “Celebrities and politicians are targeted because they talk a lot in front of the cameras, stand still and look directly into the camera. This form of video is easier to manipulate than if people are moving and their profile changes,” he explained.

A deluge of deepfakes

On the same day that the fake video of the candidate speaking in English was released – which mostly won him supporters – Kulçdaroğlu warned his followers on social media about possible interference in the election. He drew parallels with the Cambridge Analytica case, referring to the unauthorized use of personal data and the targeted social media campaign to alter the 2016 US presidential election.

The elections in Turkey are of particular importance and could end Erdogan’s 20-year rule and completely change the country’s political landscape. And at the same time, it’s the first major election taking place since the generative AI boom of recent months.

Over the past few months, Teyit has been bombarded with a wave of fake content. The site debunked over 150 controversial claims related to the election. Eight of them appeared on May 10. Many of them were masterful fakes designed to mislead readers by accusing one of the candidates of terrorism and outrages.

“It’s easy to spot this kind of content that’s fake. But it’s not easy for people who don’t think critically anymore,” says Turkish artificial intelligence expert Cem Say. This is fertile ground for machinations when society is highly polarized, as is the case during elections.

Perhaps the biggest victim of generative AI is another presidential candidate, Muharrem Ince, who dropped out of the race shortly before the election after the release of an alleged sex tape that the candidate said was a masterful fake. The founder and leader of the center-left, secular and nationalist People’s Party, which was Erdogan’s main rival in the 2018 election, said he suffered “political murder” during this year’s campaign.

“What I have seen in the last 45 days, I have never seen in the last 45 years,” Inge said in his retirement speech. “Fake videos, fake photos… they put my face on a video taken from an Israeli porn website,” he added.

But experts say there’s more. Even more aggressive tactics are possible literally at the last minute. “Masterful forgeries can be used on election day with the motivation of discouraging people from going to the polls or influencing their decision,” Say said. The specific thing in this case is that then there is no “check time”.

Dependent media

All this would probably not be so ominous if it were not for the fact that there is almost no independent media – a picture that, alas, is a fact almost everywhere in the world. And in Turkey, as in many other places, the majority of the media is dependent on the government. Some, especially the largest, are under direct control.

This, combined with modern “anti-disinformation” laws, effectively means that very few publications can afford to tell the truth. And it is precisely this “good ground” that allows master fakes to become a hit, to achieve stunning success.

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