The annual report, Freedom on the Net, scores and ranks countries according to their relative degree of internet freedom, as measured by a host of factors like internet shutdowns, laws limiting online expression, and retaliation for online speech. The 2023 edition, released on October 4, found that global internet freedom declined for the 13th consecutive year, driven in part by the proliferation of artificial intelligence.
“Internet freedom is at an all-time low, and advances in AI are actually making this crisis even worse,” says Allie Funk, a researcher on the report. Funk says one of their most important findings this year has to do with changes in the way governments use AI, though we are just beginning to learn how the technology is boosting digital oppression.
Funk found there were two primary factors behind these changes: the affordability and accessibility of generative AI is lowering the barrier of entry for disinformation campaigns, and automated systems are enabling governments to conduct more precise and more subtle forms of online censorship.
Disinformation and deepfakes
As generative AI tools grow more sophisticated, political actors are continuing to deploy the technology to amplify disinformation.
Venezuelan state media outlets, for example, spread pro-government messages through AI-generated videos of news anchors from a nonexistent international English-language channel; they were produced by Synthesia, a company that produces custom deepfakes. And in the United States, AI-manipulated videos and images of political leaders have made the rounds on social media. Examples include a video that depicted President Biden making transphobic comments and an image of Donald Trump hugging Anthony Fauci.
In addition to generative AI tools, governments persisted with older tactics, like using a combination of human and bot campaigns to manipulate online discussions. At least 47 governments deployed commentators to spread propaganda in 2023—double the number a decade ago.
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