Elections and Fakes: If Joe Biden Calls You on the Phone*

Artificial intelligence, new technologies and old-fashioned telephones, all used to attempt to influence the New Hampshire primaries in the U.S. The dangers for democracy.

Imagine being a resident of New Hampshire. While you are washing your hands before dinner after a long day at work, you get an unexpected phone call. Surprise becomes shock when you realize who’s calling you. It’s none other than President Joe Biden.

His conversation is friendly and starts — to put the listener at ease — with a phrase he uses often: “What a bunch of malarkey!” But this isn’t about malarkey — because right after his informal opening, the president goes on to make a kind of demand, like, “It’s important that you save your vote for the November election … voting this Tuesday only enables the Republicans in their quest to elect Donald Trump again. Your vote makes a difference in November, not this Tuesday.”

In essence, this is a message encouraging people not to vote for Biden in the primaries. And it ends by giving our astonished listener the phone number of Kathy Sullivan, former chair of New Hampshire’s state Democratic Party, who now runs a super political action committee, the main aim of which is precisely to convince the Democrats in that state to vote for Biden in the primaries.

As you will have figured out, the message is a fake. As far as we know, the New Hampshire attorney general’s office is looking into it, and is investigating what appears to be an “unlawful attempt” to suppress the right to vote. Subsequently, NBC News also referred to a robocall that impersonated President Biden and that told the recipients not to vote in the presidential primaries on Tuesday, Jan. 23. An investigation was launched following a complaint by a prominent New Hampshire Democrat whose phone number appeared on the screen during the (fake) presidential call. This obviously appears to be an attempt to create confusion in the opposing political camp. For now, the investigation has been unsuccessful in tracing the source of the calls.

It is important to note, though, that once again, digital technology has been used to confuse the electorate and weaken a political adversary. We have already mentioned in this publication’s pages the case of the recent election in Argentina where, during the election campaign, a fake Javier Milei appeared as a member of the Clockwork Orange gang and his rival, Sergio Massa, dressed like Che Guevara. In New Hampshire, the deepfake is no longer visual, but uses the voice and the listener as instruments to disrupt the vote. However, the most notable difference between the Argentine case and the case in New Hampshire is something else. Underpinning the latter still uses very sophisticated tools that are able to simulate a real person’s voice incredibly accurately. Then, on top of this, there’s an equally complex profiling system that is able to choose a statistically relevant sample of men and women to call.

However, there is something else even odder than clashing cutting-edge digital technology. It’s the use of a now-dated and low-tech method like the telephone to complete the operation. In other words, just to be clear, it’s as if the top Silicon Valley CEO made a deal with the call center around the corner. Though surprising, it does not change the perception of a new political phenomenon. From now on, election campaigns will be very different. Less in person and more digital. Which is to say, that we will see, but also hear, some good ones.

*Editor’s Note: This article is available in its original language with a paid subscription.

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