RAPID ADVANCES in artificial intelligence (AI) are boosting online disinformation and enabling governments to increase censorship and surveillance in a growing threat to human rights, a US nonprofit said in a report published on Wednesday.

Global internet freedom declined for the 13th consecutive year, with China, Myanmar, and Iran having the worst conditions of the 70 countries surveyed by the Freedom on the Net report, which highlighted the risks posed by easy access to generative AI technology.

AI allows governments to “enhance and refine online censorship” and amplify digital repression, making surveillance, and the creation and spread of disinformation faster, cheaper, and more effective, said the annual report by Freedom House.

“AI can be used to supercharge censorship, surveillance, and the creation and spread of disinformation,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Advances in AI are amplifying a crisis for human rights online.”

By some estimates, AI-generated content could soon account for 99% or more of all information on the internet, overwhelming content moderation systems that are already struggling to keep up with the deluge of misinformation, tech experts say.

Governments have been slow to respond, with few countries passing legislation for the ethical use of AI, while also justifying the use of AI-based surveillance technologies such as facial recognition on the grounds of security.

Generative AI-based tools were used in at least 16 countries to distort information on political or social issues over the period June 2022 to May 2023, the Freedom House report noted, adding that the figure is likely an undercount.

Meanwhile, in at least 22 countries, social media companies were required to use automated systems for content moderation to comply with censorship rules.

With at least 65 national-level elections taking place next year including in Indonesia, India, and the United States, misinformation can have major repercussions, with deepfakes already popping up from New Zealand to Turkey.

“Generative AI offers sophistication and scale to spread misinformation on a level that was previously unimaginable — it is a force multiplier of misinformation,” said Karen Rebelo, deputy editor at BOOM Live, a fact-checking organization based in Mumbai.

While AI is a “military-grade weapon in the hands of bad actors,” in India political parties and their proxies are the biggest spreaders of misinformation and disinformation, she said, and it is not in their interest to regulate AI.

While companies such as Open-AI and Google have imposed safeguards to reduce some overtly harmful uses of their AI-based chatbots, these can be easily breached, Freedom House said.

Even if deepfakes are quickly exposed, they can “undermine public trust in democratic processes, incentivize activists and journalists to self-censor, and drown out reliable and independent reporting,” the report noted.

“AI-generated imagery… can also entrench polarization and other existing tensions. In extreme cases, it could galvanize violence against individuals or whole communities,” it added.

For all its pitfalls, AI technology can be enormously beneficial, the report noted, so long as governments regulate its use and enact strong data privacy laws, while also requiring better misinformation-detection tools and safeguards for human rights. 

“When designed and deployed safely and fairly, AI can help people evade authoritarian censorship, counter disinformation, and document human rights abuses,” said Allie Funk, Freedom House’s research director for technology and democracy.

For example, AI is being increasingly used in fact checking and to analyze satellite imagery, social media posts, and images to flag human rights abuses in conflict zones. — Thomson Reuters Foundation