How a deepfake Richard Nixon on show at a Norwich museum could help safeguard democracy

It is a sombre scene, a global disaster played out on television prompting a response from the US President.

The then-President Nixon sits behind a desk to reveal that the attempted Apollo moon landing had failed, claiming the lives of all three astronauts.

You can watch it all unfold on video. It is tragic, compelling - and completely false.

The video is the work of the Massachussets Institute of Technology's Center for Advanced Virtuality. The video of Nixon is entirely fake.

It forms the centrepiece of a new exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia in Norwich called "What is Truth?"

The speech is "performed" in a mocked-up version of a typical American living room from the 60s, screening the fake footage for visitors to judge for themselves.

Its aim is to make viewers think about the importance of truth in news and social media, verifying sources and preventing the spread of misinformation.

Prof Jago Cooper: "Elections, democracy only works if people can make the right decision" Credit: ITV News Anglia

Professor Jago Cooper, director of the Sainsbury Centre, said: "I think everyone in their lives now finds it impossible to actually really know what truth is.

"We live in a world where images are being manipulated, where people can phone us with these robo-calls from AIs that pretend to be our loved-ones and ask for money.

"How do we actually know what's true in the world is absolute crucial. And if we can't know what's true, how do we make the right decisions?"

There have been a number of high profile victims of deepfakes, including ITV News' Mary Nightingale.

This question takes on greater relevancy in what has been dubbed the "Year of Elections". Eight of the world's 10 most populous nations including Brazil, India, United States, Pakistan, Russia, and Mexico have or will be going to the polls.

Increasingly there are fears it could have an impact on democracy itself.

Just last month a new study was published which revealed more than half of IT professionals fear deepfakes generated by artificial intelligence (AI) could affect the result of the general election.

A survey of workers in the sector by BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, found 65% said they were concerned an election result could be affected by misleading AI-generated content.

The study found that 92% believe political parties should agree to be transparent and declare how and when they use AI in their campaigns, and that more technical and policy solutions were needed to address the issue.

Last year, Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan told MPs the government was working with social media platforms on measures to combat deepfakes, saying “robust mechanisms” would be in place by the time of the general election, which is due by January 2025.

Prof Cooper says everyone had a duty to try to safeguard political process.

"Elections [and] democracy only work if people can make the right decision and that relies on them having the right information," he said.

"We live in a world right now where the information we have access to can be unreliable. We need places of trust in order to make the right decisions.

"But more than that we need to develop an ability to be much more cynical about what we see, [and do] much more interrogating of those things that we see in the world around us.

"That’s a skill that we all need to learn now to stop ourselves being overrun by artificial intelligence.

GCHQ's headquarters in Cheltenham. Credit: ITV News

That view is obviously one that GCHQ, the UK's intelligence, security and cyber agency subscribes to.

Political candidates and polling officials will be given access to heightened cybersecurity support ahead of this year’s general election.

The announcement comes after the UK and the US accused China of a global campaign of cyber attacks in an unprecedented joint operation to reveal Beijing’s espionage.

Britain blamed the country for targeting the Electoral Commission watchdog in 2021 and for being behind incidents of online “reconnaissance” aimed at the email accounts of MPs and peers.

Last December, the UK also condemned Moscow’s “sustained attempts at political interference” in the UK and globally, citing efforts to target parliamentarians, civil servants and journalists.

Jonathon Ellison, NCSC director for national resilience and future technology, said: “Individuals who play important roles in our democracy are an attractive target for cyber actors seeking to disrupt or otherwise undermine our open and free society.

“In this significant year of elections around the world, I urge individuals eligible for our services to sign up and to follow our guidance now to bolster their defences.”

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