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DeSantis takes AI campaign messaging in an unsettling direction

The RNC broke new ground in April with literally fake AI-generated messages in an attack ad. Ron DeSantis' campaign just made matters even worse.


The Republican National Committee took a step in late April that no political party had ever taken before. In an attack video targeting President Joe Biden, the RNC asked voters to imagine the horrible things that might happen in the Democrat’s second term, and as part of the pitch, Republicans included AI-created images.

By any fair measure, it was an unusually odd argument. Biden’s actual record apparently wasn’t scary, so the RNC found it necessary to peddle literally fake, made-up images referring to events that have not occurred.

Nevertheless, it marked a provocative moment in the history of political messaging: A major political party relied on artificial intelligence to go after a rival.

This week, as The New York Times noted, it happened again, but in a slightly different way.

As Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida begins to aggressively attack former President Donald J. Trump, his campaign has spread three images of the former president embracing Dr. Anthony S. Fauci that forensic experts say are almost certainly realistic-looking “deepfakes” generated by artificial intelligence.

The campaign video included legitimate photographs, but they were interspersed with bogus images of Trump hugging and kissing Fauci.

A casual viewer would assume the images were real. Indeed, that was almost certainly the point: DeSantis and his team appear to have used AI in the hopes of deceiving the public.

The former president’s allies have condemned the duplicity — for a change, they have a point — and a Washington Post analysis added that the Florida governor and his political operation weren’t exactly contrite after having been caught.

In response to criticism of the new web video Thursday, the DeSantis campaign played the whataboutism card and rather flippantly dismissed concerns about its deception. It pointed to a fake image Trump shared on social media of DeSantis riding a rhinoceros (the implication being that DeSantis is a RINO, or “Republican in Name Only.”) The image looks a lot more like a crude photoshop than an AI image, though. It also seems much less likely to lead people to think it’s genuine. And even to the extent people believe it’s real, it would hardly be as damning as Trump hugging a much-hated figure on the right.

In the coming months and years, this serves as a reminder that news consumers will have to exercise even greater caution before assuming that provocative images are genuine.

But it’s also worth pausing to appreciate what we’re learning about DeSantis and his far-right presidential campaign. As the governor prepared to launch his national candidacy, the Floridian had a broad pitch that was at least coherent: For Republicans who’ve grown tired of Trump’s drama and scandals, DeSantis would offer a normal, competent alternative.

That message has effectively been thrown out the window. Instead, DeSantis is presenting himself as a Trump imitator, equally indifferent to reality and propriety, which is every bit as pitiful as it sounds.