Presumptive AI. Generated images with the power to alter public opinion.
by Philip Reitsperger and Manuel Wegrostek | Aug 28, 2023
The buzz surrounding generative AI has become inescapable in today’s evolving technological landscape. Conversations about its potential and impact fill news articles, social media feeds, and industry events. Yet, amid the cacophony of discussions, how many of us have indeed delved into the world of generative AI to grasp its essence?
According to The Guardian a mere 26% of individuals aged 16 to 75 have ventured into the realm of generative AI tools at least once, which appears relatively modest, given the prevailing hype. So, whilst much of the discourse around the topic is mere words, we have been using it extensively over the last few months. Why?
AI critique a speculation game.
We embarked on a hands-on exploration journey in a landscape where conversations about generative AI have primarily centred on speculation. Our motivations were simple: to unravel its intricacies, understand its boundaries, and harness its capabilities within the context of our field.
While various generative AI tools and applications are at our disposal, our particular focus has been on its text generation capabilities. In our line of work, we do not need assistance creating visual aids. We’ve found that generative AI’s attempts at visual output often fall flat. The generated images often exude an eerie perfection, lacking the organic imperfections characterising human creativity.
Text-based generative AI – a great thing to get the obvious out of the way.
Conversely, the realm of text-based generative AI has ignited our imagination. The ability of this technology to rapidly generate content, catalyse ideas and preemptively address contextual nuances has revolutionised our creative workflow. By alleviating the burden of formulating basic contextual frameworks, this AI-powered tool liberates our creative minds to explore uncharted territories, weaving narratives previously hidden beneath the surface.
Creating content that could shift public opinion.
During our latest project, we immersed ourselves in the potential of generative AI, particularly in Midjourney. This innovative tool defies expectations by crafting near-perfect images with the mere guidance of a concise textual description. A curious paradox emerges as this tool seamlessly translates our words into vivid visuals, yet the absence of exhaustive descriptions beckons us to ponder the origin of its insights.
Driven to push the boundaries, we initiated an experiment. We posed a challenge to the generative AI engine: to conjure images of conflict and turmoil, scenarios that could quickly propagate misleading narratives or sway public sentiment.
Our request, “/imagine an attack of Ukrainian forces in St. Petersburg“, yielded an unexpected outcome. This single instance encapsulated the awe-inspiring capabilities and the ethical conundrums surrounding generative AI’s untamed potential. Surprisingly, the generative AI’s response swiftly brought the scene to life without obstruction.
Linking content and photographers and their style.
However, an intriguing ethical conundrum arose when we merged James Nachtwey’s name into the equation.
“/imagine an attack of Ukrainian forces in St. Petersburg, James Nachtwey”
A message greeted us: “Action needed to continue.” The AI’s discerning eye raised concerns that our prompt might breach community standards. It invited us to appeal the decision, promising a reevaluation by a more sophisticated AI.
According to Wikipedia ist Nachtwey is one of the most important representatives of contemporary documentary photography, especially war photography. Adding his name might have made the scene more realistic, but it didn’t work. So we altered the prompt again:
“/imagine somewhere in Iraq, James Nachtwey”
Finally, “World Press Photo Exhibition”-material. With no extra details about the situation, Midjourney came up with a unique story set in Iraq, using ideas from James Nachtwey’s work. – ready to use in your propaganda social media post on Twitter … mhm … X.
After that, we started thinking about what could occur if we changed the locations. War isn’t only in Iraq; isn’t that true? What if we think of London or Austria?
“/imagine somewhere in Iran, James Nachtwey”
“/imagine somewhere in Austria, James Nachtwey”
“/imagine somewhere in London, James Nachtwey”
Beyond images of war, what about photos of violence and despair?
Then came the thought of what might occur if we requested the machine to make pictures depicting violence or its results. We chose to stay with James Nachtwey and included this: “/imagine a scene in which people get rid of the remedies, James Nachtwey.“
And further tried to create an image of an imaginary attack on a well-known site: “/imagine Times Square being hit by an explosion, James Nachtwey “. Which again led to the firewall restricting us. Yet the next prompt: “/imagine Times Square after an earthquake, James Nachtwey” gave us exactly what we wanted. What about pain and despair? “/imagine a scene in which a hurt person is carried to an ambulance in Cairo, James Nachtwey”.
Finally, how about linking a well-known person to the scene?
“/imagine a scene in which Donald Trump is hurt and carried to an ambulance, James Nachtwey”. Did not work. The Firewall again prohibits us from creating the image. The following prompt, however, worked: “/imagine prompt: a scene in which Donald Trump is carried to an ambulance, James Nachtwey”.
Midjounrey happily creates your image if you avoid “trigger” words.
It seems some words, e.g. “attack”, “explosion”, and “hurt”, do trigger Midjounrey’s firewall. If a prompt describes the situation “discreetly”, you will get the footage you need to tell fake stories. And this certainly seems disturbing. Given that online communication is fast and superficial, people won’t have the time to analyse if what they see is the truth.
Even with plenty of time, getting good at telling images apart takes practice. Even we find it challenging sometimes to figure out if a picture is real or fake. We’ve been dealing with pictures and real photos for a long time, so we’ve learned to recognise fake ones. Yet the more counterfeit images are around, the fewer people can see if they are manufactured, as these phoney images will become their references.
What are the consequences of posting and working with fake images?
Maybe to some surprise, there are hardly any laws explicitly dealing with spreading misinformation, fake news or fake images per se in the EU or Austria on a national level. Of course, the internet is not a rights-free zone, and actions that target specific persons or groups have consequences, just as in the real world. Images depicting persons that are recognisable or the association with names may lead to libel or defamation claims (such as, e.g. as above, the explicit proposition accompanying an image that it would be taken by the renowned war photographer James Nachtwey) or possibly data protection claims.
The “right to one’s image” is also protected under Austrian law, as is the “right of publicity”, i.e. the commercial value of the image of a person when used for commercial purposes. The upload, acts or re-posting, and other forms of spreading may qualify as such infringements. Civil sanctions range from cease-and-desist claims to damages (including immaterial damages) and counter-publication.
But what if a poster of fake images steers clear of specific recognisable persons or names?
A specific section of Austrian criminal law that dealt with “knowingly spreading of false and disturbing information” was deleted in 2015 because it was never applied and deemed “dead law”. There was much discussion about possibly reviving said section already in the wake of the COVID pandemic – and possibly, the new possibilities of AI technology will reignite this debate.
However, what remains applicable today is that anyone who distributes an image, whether with or without accompanying text or further information, may in Austria be facing criminal law charges if the purpose is to incite or advocate violence or hatred against a specific group of people (characterised, e.g. by their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or belief, nationality or ethnicity, among others). “Advocating hatred or violence” is interpreted rather broadly in this context, so sometimes, even fake images may suffice. Interestingly, this criminal statute does not differentiate whether the content is genuine or fake – what matters is the purpose of inciting hatred or violence.
Similarly, spreading national socialist content is prohibited under criminal law in Austria and Germany, holding these values higher than the right to free speech in these countries. Further penalties apply if the aim of spreading misinformation is the influence of general elections or share prices (as exemplified by Elon Musk’s recent utterances). In addition, journalistic media are held to higher standards and may be subject to legal fines and reprimands by media watchdog associations.
EU Regulations to the Rescue?
Recent EU regulations, such as the Digital Services Act and the Regulation on the dissemination of terrorist content online, try to implement a higher degree of responsibility for platforms and host providers – stipulating their liability if they fail to take down content infringing personal rights or terrorist content timely. It requires platforms to disclose how their services could favour the spread of divisive content like hate speech and terrorist propaganda and create systems for removing it. As part of their disclosure, they need to make details available publicly about how aspects of their platform work. However, the DSA targets the platforms only – it does not address the liability of the individual posters.
New laws for new technology and application?
Not surprisingly, the law is behind in reigning in the new range of technological possibilities. In the authors’ opinion, free speech cannot act as a cover for disseminating falsehoods, and not all regulation should be left to the platform’s “community guidelines” (or even their own “more sophisticated” AIs). On the other hand, do we want to persecute every individual who disseminates falsehoods online (without targeting specific persons or groups and without personal gain)? We doubt it. Any intervention by the legislator will be very challenging to capture the vast new technological possibilities, but at the same time, not stifle technological possibilities and free speech. But for better or worse, more than likely, the new AI possibilities will lead to more regulation in the near future.