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How Arizona is preparing for AI-powered election misinformation

This story originally aired on “Marketplace Tech” on April 12.

President Joe Biden won Arizona in 2020 by a razor-thin margin, flipping the state blue for the first time in more than 20 years. As a result, Arizona became a hotbed of election misinformation and conspiracy theories, as false claims of a stolen election led to protests outside voting centers, a GOP-backed ballot audit and threats against election workers.

Now, with just over 200 days until the 2024 election, experts warn that artificial intelligence could supercharge misinformation and disinformation in this year’s race. So how are election officials in a state that has already been in the trenches preparing for another battle over facts?

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Arizona Secretary of State Adrian Fontes to learn more. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

ADRIAN FONTES: Generative artificial intelligence is not a new weapon in the arsenal. It is an expander, an amplifier of the old weapons of misinformation, disinformation and malinformation. The notion is to knock people off their games, whether it's spoofing elections officials like myself or candidates. You don't know what you don't know, so being exposed to a potential weapon really helps you recognize it better if and when you actually have to face it in the real world. It's not a new thing. It's not strange, right? You've dealt with it, you've kind of figured it out.

LILY JAMALI: I want to dwell on that point for a moment — this idea that misinformation is not a new problem, we just have new tools now. Expand on that, if you would. 

FONTES: Yeah, well, look — we've been telling the truth about American elections across the United States of America. There is no such thing as a perfect election. But at the same time, we also don't have widespread fraud in the United States of America. We don't have millions and millions of people who are on the voter rolls who shouldn't be. That's just not the case. 

But that is a prevalent lie. That is part of the misinformation/disinformation campaign by these, you know, unAmerican forces, by the folks that want to see our country collapse. And those lies are the weapon. But the amplifier for that weapon is now in existence. We are facing it, because artificial intelligence can get a message out on social media and other platforms faster and louder and much more effectively than some of the old traditional methods that we're more used to. So, we have to be that much more vigilant, even in the face of some of these threats that a lot of us really aren't even still completely familiar with. We're doing our level best to really plan for something that may not even exist yet. But we're looking at sort of — again, like I said — the same weapon, just a much bigger, more potent version of that weapon.

JAMALI: So you all in Arizona have this information security team that is tasked with defending the state's election infrastructure from cyberattacks. The team also monitors the internet for misinformation and disinformation threats. You have gotten some criticism for this. And I want to talk about this for a moment, because voters in your state — some of them, as well as people from outside — some of them say that this borders on government surveillance and censorship. What do you say to that criticism?

FONTES: Well, yeah, we're surveilling. We're looking out for people that want to do us harm. You know, in 12 of our 15 counties, we've lost senior election officials because of the domestic terrorism that is actually happening. Let's be really clear: Terrorism is defined as a threat or actual violence to achieve a political end. And when you're out there threatening election officials, when you're out there disrupting the very nature of our democracy itself, that's not protected speech. You can't censor something if it's not protected. These folks are out there trying to do our democracy harm, and I am not going to run away from trying to investigate them and expose them for the liars that they are — for trying to harm Americans' capacity to vote. 

And this is not a political question. This is an apolitical question. This is about the very nature of our democracy. Somebody's got to stand up against this and say, "No, you cannot yell 'Fire!' in a crowded theater.” There are just some things that are not protected. And so if we don't monitor, if we don't pay attention to what's going on, then certainly we're going to end up being victims of some of this stuff. 

But at the same time, I understand the overreaction to this. I understand that there's some people who take political advantage from this sort of threat, from this misinformation and disinformation. And yeah, they're gonna try to weaponize the First Amendment. I get that 100%. That's what shady politics is about. But I'm not about that; I want to protect our voters, I want to protect our election systems. I want to protect our democracy.

JAMALI: OK, so what about folks who genuinely are concerned about the potential invasion of privacy that this approach could create? Do you have anything to say to people who also consider themselves apolitical when it comes to this issue but think that's important?

FONTES: Yeah, absolutely. Look, everybody who knows anything about the internet understands that nothing on the internet is really very personal or private. What I want to do is make sure that we're monitoring those spaces where people will put into public chats and public forums, by the way. This isn't like DMing someone on Instagram. This is public information that people are putting out there into crowded spaces about potential plots to do things. We want to look at those things. 

But we want to make sure our people are safe. Like, what am I supposed to do? Just wait till one of my election workers gets hurt? You know, just wait till more of our officials get driven out of office because of these bad actors? 

At the end of the day, what we're doing is helping to protect and preserve our democracy. And that doesn't include any sort of a political lean. It doesn't matter who ends up getting the votes at the end of the day — let me be very clear about that. What matters is that the process is maintained, our process administrators are protected, and our voters can trust the outcome of our elections at the end of the day. That's what matters to me, regardless of who the winners and the losers are.

JAMALI: You've mentioned safety a number of times during our conversation. Are you worried about your own safety? Are you worried about the safety of members of your staff?

FONTES: We are concerned about all kinds of things here. Our No. 1 thing is to stick to the fundamentals when we're running our elections, and it would be silly of me to deny there is concern. We are concerned. We've already suffered threats. We've seen documented case after case after case. In fact, the Department of Justice and the FBI have prosecuted people and gotten convictions because of some of the threats that we've seen. So yeah, it's worrisome. But at the end of the day, our work is far more important than our fear, and our opinions are far less important than our duty. And that's the attitude that we have to march forward with when we're running American elections.

JAMALI: When you think about the impact that AI could have on this election, what are you most concerned about? What's keeping you up at night?

FONTES: Well, as it pertains — well, there's a lot of things keeping me up at night — but as it pertains to AI, one of the things that's really, really heavy on my mind is that we won't be able to get in front of it with the rest of the media, if you will. Right? That somehow one of these deepfakes is going to get through and get reflected somehow in the wrong way by major media outlets who tend to then pick up stories and run with them. That, to me, is one of the tough things. And that's why one of the tabletop exercises that we're hosting here in Arizona is geared specifically towards members of the media, because the last thing we need is the already amplified artificial intelligence bad message get reamplified by our friends in the media. So we want to make sure everybody is at least using the same verification channels so that we don't repeat bad messages. 

JAMALI: Of course, the way that we receive information in this country has changed so much over the last couple of years. Half of Americans now say that they get at least some of their news from social media. And we know that not everything on there is fact-checked, far from it. As we navigate this changing information environment, what do you want voters to know?

FONTES: Well, what I want voters to know is that they can go to the trusted sources of information in the form of their local election officials, in the form of their Secretaries of State. The trusted voices are going to be those folks who actually run the elections. They are your local county clerks or county recorders in some spaces, your Secretaries of State. These are the places where you want to get that legit information about the time, place and manner of your elections. Pick who you want as a winner of a contest or who you're going to vote for. We want to make sure that your opinion and your power is reflected in the results of the election.

This conversation was part of “Marketplace Tech’s” limited series, “Decoding Democracy.”