Monday, May 20, 2024

Trump supporters target black voters with fake AI images

Donald Trump supporters have been creating and sharing AI-generated fake images of black voters to encourage African Americans to vote Republican.

BBC Panorama discovered dozens of deepfakes portraying black people as supporting the former president.

Mr Trump has openly courted black voters, who were key to Joe Biden’s election win in 2020.

But there’s no evidence directly linking these images to Mr Trump’s campaign.

The co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a group which encourages black people to vote, said the manipulated images were pushing a “strategic narrative” designed to show Mr Trump as popular in the black community.

A creator of one of the images told the BBC: “I’m not claiming it’s accurate.”

The fake images of black Trump supporters, generated by artificial intelligence (AI), are one of the emerging disinformation trends ahead of the US presidential election in November.

Unlike in 2016, when there was evidence of foreign influence campaigns, the AI-generated images found by the BBC appear to have been made and shared by US voters themselves.

One of them was Mark Kaye and his team at a conservative radio show in Florida.

They created an image of Mr Trump smiling with his arms around a group of black women at a party and shared it on Facebook, where Mr Kaye has more than one million followers.

At first it looks real, but on closer inspection everyone’s skin is a little too shiny and there are missing fingers on people’s hands – some tell-tale signs of AI-created images.

“I’m not a photojournalist,” Mr Kaye tells me from his radio studio.

“I’m not out there taking pictures of what’s really happening. I’m a storyteller.”

He had posted an article about black voters supporting Mr Trump and attached this image to it, giving the impression that these people all support the former president’s run for the White House.

In the comments on Facebook, several users appeared to believe the AI image was real.

“I’m not claiming it is accurate. I’m not saying, ‘Hey, look, Donald Trump was at this party with all of these African American voters. Look how much they love him!'” he said.

“If anybody’s voting one way or another because of one photo they see on a Facebook page, that’s a problem with that person, not with the post itself.”

Another widely viewed AI image the BBC investigation found shows Mr Trump posing with black voters on a front porch. It had originally been posted by a satirical account that generates images of the former president, but only gained widespread attention when it was reposted with a new caption falsely claiming that he had stopped his motorcade to meet these people.

This image was widely viewed on social media with a caption saying Trump had stopped his motorcade to pose with these men
We tracked down the person behind the account called Shaggy, who is a committed Trump supporter living in Michigan.

“[My posts] have attracted thousands of wonderful kind-hearted Christian followers,” he said in messages sent to the BBC on social media.

When I tried to question him on the AI-generated image he blocked me. His post has had over 1.3 million views, according to the social media site X. Some users called it out, but others seemed to have believed the image was real.

I did not find similarly manipulated images of Joe Biden with voters from a particular demographic. The AI images of the president tend to feature him alone or with other world leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin or former US President Barack Obama.

Some are created by critics, others by supporters.

In January, the Democratic candidate was himself a victim of an AI-generated impersonation.

An automated audio call, purportedly voiced by the president, urged voters to skip the New Hampshire primary where he was running. A Democratic Party supporter has admitted responsibility, saying he wanted to draw attention to the potential for the technology to be abused.

Cliff Albright, the co-founder of campaign group Black Voters Matter, said there appeared to be a resurgence of disinformation tactics targeting the black community, as in the 2020 election.

“There have been documented attempts to target disinformation to black communities again, especially younger black voters,” he said.

Cliff Albright, who runs an organisation encouraging black people to vote, says younger black voters are targeted for disinformation
I show him the AI-generated pictures in his office in Atlanta, Georgia – a key election battleground state where convincing even a small slice of the overall black vote to switch from Mr Biden to Mr Trump could prove decisive.

A recent New York Times and Sienna College poll found that in six key swing states 71% of black voters would back Mr Biden in 2024, a steep drop from the 92% nationally that helped him win the White House at the last election.

Mr Albright said the fake images were consistent with a “very strategic narrative” pushed by conservatives – from the Trump campaign down to influencers online – designed to win over black voters. They are particularly targeting young black men, who are thought to be more open to voting for Mr Trump than black women.

On Monday, MAGA Inc, the main political action committee backing Trump, is due to launch an advertising campaign targeting black voters in Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania.

It is aimed at voters like Douglas, a taxi driver in Atlanta.

Justin Webb and Marianna Spring travel from the frozen plains of Iowa to the swing state of Georgia to explore Donald Trump’s enduring appeal and look ahead to an unprecedented American election year.

Douglas said he was mainly worried about the economy and immigration – issues which he felt Trump was more focused on. He said Democratic messaging about Trump’s threat to democracy would not motivate him to vote, because he was already disillusioned with the electoral process.

The US economy is generally doing well, but some voters – like Douglas – don’t feel better off because they’ve also been through a cost of living crisis.

What did he think of the AI-generated image of Trump sitting on a front porch with black voters? When I first showed it to him, he believed it was real. He said it bolstered his view, shared by some other black people he knows, that Trump is supportive of the community.

Then, I revealed it was a fake.

“Well, that’s the thing about social media. It’s so easy to fool people,” he said.

“It’s so easy to fool people” on social media, says cab driver Douglas, after viewing one of the AI fakes
Disinformation tactics in the US presidential elections have evolved since 2016, when Donald Trump won. Back then, there were documented attempts by hostile foreign powers, such as Russia, to use networks of inauthentic accounts to try to sow division and plant particular ideas.

In 2020, the focus was on home-grown disinformation – particularly false narratives that the presidential election was stolen, which were shared widely by US-based social media users and endorsed by Mr Trump and other Republican politicians.

In 2024, experts warn of a dangerous combination of the two.

At first glance, some voters miss the tell-tale signs of an AI-generated image – which sometimes can include extra arms
Ben Nimmo, who until last month was responsible for countering foreign influence operations at Meta, the owner of Facebook and Instagram, said the confusion created by fakes like these also opens new opportunities for foreign governments who may seek to manipulate elections.

“Anybody who has a substantial audience in 2024 needs to start thinking, how do I vet anything which gets sent to me? How do I make sure that I don’t unwittingly become part of some kind of foreign influence operation?” he said.

Mr Nimmo said that social media users and platforms are increasingly able to identify fake automated accounts, so as it gets harder to build an audience in this way “operations try to co-opt real people” to increase the reach of divisive or misleading information.

“The best bet they have is to try and land [their content] through an influencer. That’s anyone who has a big audience on social media,” he said.

Mr Nimmo said he was concerned in 2024 that these people, who may be willing to spread misinformation to their ready-made audiences, could become “unwitting vectors” for foreign influence operations.

These operations could share content with users – either covertly or overtly – and encourage them to post it themselves, so it appears to have come from a real US voter, he said.

All of the major social media companies have policies in place to tackle potential influence operations, and several – like Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram – have introduced new measures to deal with AI-generated content during elections.

Leading politicians from around the world have also highlighted the risks of AI-generated content this year.

Narratives about the 2020 election being stolen – which were shared without any evidence – spread online with simple posts, memes and algorithms, not AI-generated images or video, and still resulted in the US Capitol riot on 6 January.

This time around, there is a whole new range of tools available to political partisans and provocateurs which could inflame tensions once again.




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