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Warner says US could be less prepared for election threats than it was four years ago

Mark Warner
Amanda Andrade-Rhoades
The Associated Press File
Mark Warner, D-Va., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, speaks during a hearing at the Capitol in Washington, March 8, 2023. Warner said Monday, June 3, 2024, the U.S. may be less prepared for the threat of foreign election disinformation ahead of this year's election than it was four years ago. Warner based his assessment on the development of powerful new AI programs that make it easier than ever to generate deepfake audio and video that can fool voters.

Several challenges, including AI, will make safeguarding the election different than in the past.

WASHINGTON — With five months remaining before the general election, the U.S. might be more vulnerable to foreign disinformation aimed at influencing voters and undermining democracy than it was before the 2020 election, said Sen. Mark Warner, the leader of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The Virginia Democrat based his warning on several factors: improved disinformation tactics by Russia and China, the rise of domestic candidates and groups willing to spread disinformation, and the proliferation of artificial intelligence programs that allow the rapid creation of images, audio and video.

In addition, tech companies have rolled back their efforts to protect users from misinformation even as the government's own attempts to combat the problem have become mired in debates about surveillance and censorship.

As a result, the U.S. could face a greater threat of foreign disinformation ahead of the 2024 election than it did in the past two presidential election cycles, Warner said.

"We may be less prepared 155 days out in 2024 than we were under President Trump [in 2020]," Warner said Monday.

Noting similar campaigns in 2016 and 2020, security officials, democracy activists and disinformation researchers have warned for years that Russia, China, Iran and domestic groups within the U.S. will use online platforms to spread false and polarizing content designed to influence the race between Trump, a Republican, and President Joe Biden, a Democrat.

Warner's assessment of America's vulnerability comes just weeks after top security officials told the Intelligence Committee that the U.S. has greatly improved its ability to combat foreign disinformation.

Several new challenges, however, will make safeguarding the 2024 election different than past cycles.

AI programs have already been used to generate misleading content, such as a robocall that mimicked the voice of Biden telling New Hampshire voters not to cast a ballot in that state's primary. Deceptive deepfakes created with AI programs have also popped up ahead of elections in India, Mexico, Moldova, Slovakia and Bangladesh.

Attempts by federal agencies to communicate with tech companies about disinformation campaigns have been complicated by court cases and debates over the role of government in monitoring political discourse.

Tech platforms have largely moved away from aggressive policies prohibiting election misinformation. X, formerly Twitter, laid off most of its content moderators in favor of a hands-off approach that now allows Neo-Nazi hate speech, Russian propaganda and disinformation.

Last year YouTube, owned by Google, reversed its policy prohibiting debunked election claims and now allows videos that argue the 2020 election was the result of widespread fraud.

Questions about China's influence over TikTok prompted Congress to pass a law that would ban the popular site in the U.S. if its Beijing-based owner refuses to divest.

Meta, the owner of Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, prohibits information that interferes with election processes and regularly removes foreign influence operations when it identifies them. The platform also said it will label content made with AI. But the company is also allowing political advertisements that claim the 2020 election was rigged, which critics said undercuts its promises.

"I'm not sure that these companies, other than the press release, have done anything in a meaningful way," Warner said.

Representatives from X and TikTok did not immediately respond to messages on Monday.

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