Former Asst. Secretary of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research
Strategic Advisor, Institute for Security and Technology (IST)
OPINION — Trust in institutions, to include government, media, financial institutions, and education continues to decline as noted in several recent public opinion polls. Given this, how can people trust their elections?
As we head into a presidential election year, election integrity, in an environment of accelerating polarization and the proliferation of generative artificial intelligence (AI), is a paramount issue as free and fair elections are the foundation of our democracy. If people believe that elections are not conducted fairly and accurately, it can lead to lower voter turnout, general cynicism about the process, and make us more vulnerable to foreign interference and even violence.
This is not limited to the US.
Globally, elections will affect 4.2 billion people in over 60 countries. The world economic forum lists misinformation and disinformation as the most significant risk to global security. The proliferation and misuse of generative AI further compounds the challenge.
Leading technology experts point out that AI is making it exceedingly difficult to distinguish accidents from criminal incidents and fact from fiction. With the proliferation of generative AI, information quality and election integrity are becoming exceedingly intertwined. We can’t improve election integrity without democratizing access to quality information. We can’t restore trust in institutions unless we make quality information accessible. Information quality is a critical national advantage that can restore trust in institutions.
Information Quality is the Currency of Democracy
We’ve all seen an increasing number of AI-generated audio, videos, and images that sow confusion and distrust about both public and private institutions. In particular, we’ve seen mounting attacks on election procedures and governance by inauthentic content around the world from Ukraine, Slovakia, Singapore, Bangladesh, India, the UK, the Philippines, Venezuela, and here in our own country.
Similar attacks leveraging generative AI have been increasing around the Israeli-Hamas conflict and amid a social rift in France. We’re also seeing a growing sector that weaponizes information and AI to disrupt democratic processes and distort how the public perceives social and political events.
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The threat of AI-generated content is growing ubiquitous in our country as well, ranging from inauthentic robocalls to deepfakes of political candidates. These threats are much more acute at the state and local levels, where officials tend to have fewer resources and less sophisticated cybersecurity defenses.
Threats of inauthentic content all have one common denominator: they erode trust in democratic institutions. Despite numerous attempts at mitigating the harms of inauthentic content, we’re nowhere near effective solutions. Our experience and work from Washington, DC to Silicon Valley has revealed that a common language on information quality, one that spans academia, media, and technology sectors is key to making existing and new solutions interoperable.
The absence of information quality is no longer a minor issue for secure and trusted elections. Trust in information quality is the foundation of democracy. The proliferation of inauthentic information directly undermines how we sustain and build democratic norms and institutions. Information quality is more critical than ever as the currency of democracy. It drives trust in institutions.
Information quality is also an economic advantage. We are seeing an increasing volume of inauthentic content used for economic and financial crimes. Deepfake videos and audios are often used for frauds that severely hurt companies. This is why we must establish and adopt interoperable information quality standards across industry, government, civil society, and academia.
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The imperative of information quality in the age of AI is not taking place in a geostrategic vacuum. Our country is engulfed in an intense competition of institutional design at home and abroad against autocratic regimes. Core to this competition is which institutional design will prevail to sustain and expand the rules-based global order our nation has underpinned since the end of World War II.
Trust is the core of this competition. And nothing drives that sense of trust more than how we consume and seek information. Unless we establish digital information as a critical infrastructure, we’re unlikely to prevail in this competition against the PRC, the Kremlin, and their proxies.
How do we do it? We must collectively embark on several actions to scale how we restore and expand trust through enabling quality information accessible to individuals and organizations.
We must broaden a network of networks across technology, business, civil society, and government to enable information quality as a national advantage. The government alone cannot lead this mission. In fact, it often leads to counterproductive results. Moreover, attacks on transparent information about elections are real, present, and exceedingly destructive.
We’ve launched a multi-sectoral working group across technology, business, government, and academia at the Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International affaris to build a set of scientifically grounded standards and measurements that citizens and organizations can use to seek reliable, transparent, and accurate information that they need to make decisions. A recent report compiled by leading computer scientists and technologists also underscores the necessity to prioritize quality and transparency in the information ecosystem.
In the information environment, no other decision is more critical than how we renew trust in our institutions. Aligning AI with information quality is at the frontline of renewing that trust. We will share the results of this effort in the coming months.
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In addition, working with key stakeholders in academia, industry, and civil society, we are building a publicly available dashboard that allows users to search and find reliable, accurate, and transparent information about elections. This will flatten the inequality of election-related information often exploited by malign actors. Voters will be able seek, access, and consume transparent, accurate, and reliable information about election procedures and processes using our dashboard. Additionally, it will provide election officials at the state and local levels with an information advantage.
We are also organizing a tech challenge to harness our country’s innovation power with access to quality information. The goal of this challenge is to mobilize and align the best innovators, technologists, journalists, and entrepreneurs with the competitiveness of our business community to solve the problem of eroding trust both in public and private sectors.
When we demand and share quality information, we restore trust in institutions. And that trust in institutions is our national advantage. To that end, it is imperative that we reconstitute information as a critical infrastructure essential to our national advantage. Trust in institutions in the era of strategic competition is our national advantage. When people and organizations demand and consume quality information, it reinforces the institutional resilience of democratic societies. Conversely, without information quality, democratic societies will be unable to compete against autocratic forces that are actively undermining the reliability and transparency of the information environment.
With the proliferation of generative AI that will dominate the information environment, we must ensure it is aligned with information quality for our political process to retain its integrity. This is the fight for our trust in institutions and elections.
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Hon. Ellen McCarthy is the Chairwoman and CEO of the Truth in Media Cooperative. She has over three decades of national security service in a variety of leadership roles that span numerous intelligence organizations, most recently serving as the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. She’s currently a senior fellow at the Belfer Center, Harvard.
Doowan Lee is a strategic advisor to the Institute for Security and Technology (IST) and adjunct professor of politics at the Univ. of San Francisco. He specializes in disinformation analysis and great power competition in the information environment. Before joining IST, he taught at the Naval Postgraduate School for more than 11 years as a faculty member and principal investigator.