Ten years ago, if you asked somebody what the greatest threat to liberal democracy was, they would probably say North Korea. Now, it’s online trolls.
Considering the growing number of online news readers, technology has fundamentally changed the way individuals consume media. From pro-Trump sites run by teenagers for profit to Russian disinformation campaigns for political purposes, disinformation—the intentional spreading of false information to influence public opinion—is on the rise. In fact, a report by researchers at the University of Oxford even described how social media manipulation campaigns are already taking place by the governments and political parties of 70 countries. Emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing will change the digital landscape far beyond what we can even imagine and thus revolutionize disinformation, making it an even more challenging and complex issue to address.
Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to easily and quickly generate massive amounts of fake news—news that is false but is being presented as factually correct. Earlier this year, American tech company OpenAI announced that it had developed GPT-2, an artificial intelligence algorithm trained to write English articles based off of 40 gigabytes of Internet text, but decided not to release it after realizing its applicability for disinformation; readers thought that synthetic text samples from GPT-2 were almost as credible as real articles from the New York Times. Moreover, a Duke researcher at the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience proved that “repetition of a statement increases its likelihood of being judged true,” a psychological phenomenon described as the illusory truth effect which could pull fringe views and fake news into the mainstream if these AI algorithms were used to inundate social media with disinformation and convince the public that these articles were truthful. Disinformation groups utilizing AI would be able to output massive quantities of fabricated articles and headlines, blurring the line between what the public thinks is fact and what the public thinks is fiction.
Quantum computing, computing which exploits the laws of quantum physics to process information faster than typically possible, is often seen as the future of computing, and one of its most influential aspects will be its applicability to cryptography. Modern encryption protocols—including the standard online encryption used by web browsers—use asymmetric encryption which is based off the principle that large numbers are very, very, very hard to prime factorize. However, Shor’s quantum prime factorization algorithm can factor prime numbers exponentially faster than current algorithms, which would render asymmetric encryption effectively useless; this would allow access to essentially any encrypted system. More specifically, this could be used to plant disinformation within trustworthy news sources by changing content in articles after being published. Additionally, on an institutional level, it could be used to ruin the public opinion of conventionally trustworthy sources by consistently publishing false content from these sources, diminishing the spread of accurate information as well.
As these revolutionary technologies stray further and further from science fiction and edge closer and closer to reality, they will increase the effectiveness, quality, and quantity of disinformation. Even now, disinformation campaigns have led to a rise in nationalism in Sweden and measles outbreaks in the United States. Specifically, Russia and China will be major actors in this field going into the future. China, as a semi-authoritarian state already using AI in oppressive manners such as through the racial profiling of Uighurs, has increased funding heavily for the AI industry and could catch up to the United States and the United Kingdom in AI innovation in as soon as five years. Similarly, with quantum computing, China has even pulled ahead relative to Western research in some areas. Russia, although having invested less in these areas, has engaged extensively in disinformation campaigns and will likely use technological innovation to improve these campaigns. The unethical use of technology by these global powers will have dire consequences; it’s already difficult to address disinformation, and emerging technologies such as AI and quantum computing will only make it harder.
Though what disinformation may cause in the future is up in the air, the fact that we will need more robust ways to address it is not.