OpenAI finds Russian and Chinese groups used its tech for propaganda campaigns

OpenAI finds Russian and Chinese groups used its tech for propaganda campaigns

SAN FRANCISCO — ChatGPT maker OpenAI said Thursday that it caught groups from Russia, China, Iran and Israel using its technology to try to influence political discourse around the world, highlighting concerns that generative artificial intelligence is making it easier for state actors to run covert propaganda campaigns as the 2024 presidential election nears.

OpenAI removed accounts associated with well-known propaganda operations in Russia, China and Iran; an Israeli political campaign firm; and a previously unknown group originating in Russia that the company’s researchers dubbed “Bad Grammar.” The groups used OpenAI’s tech to write posts, translate them into various languages and build software that helped them automatically post to social media.

None of these groups managed to get much traction; the social media accounts associated with them reached few users and had just a handful of followers, said Ben Nimmo, principal investigator on OpenAI’s intelligence and investigations team. Still, OpenAI’s report shows that propagandists who’ve been active for years on social media are using AI tech to boost their campaigns.

“We’ve seen them generating text at a higher volume and with fewer errors than these operations have traditionally managed,” Nimmo, who previously worked at Meta tracking influence operations, said in a briefing with reporters. Nimmo said it’s possible that other groups may still be using OpenAI’s tools without the company’s knowledge.

“This is not the time for complacency. History shows that influence operations that spent years failing to get anywhere can suddenly break out if nobody’s looking for them,” he said.

Governments, political parties and activist groups have used social media to try to influence politics for years. After concerns about Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election, social media platforms began paying closer attention to how their sites were being used to sway voters. The companies generally prohibit governments and political groups from covering up concerted efforts to influence users, and political ads must disclose who paid for them.

As AI tools that can generate realistic text, images and even video become generally available, disinformation researchers have raised concerns that it will become even harder to spot and respond to false information or covert influence operations online. Hundreds of millions of people vote in elections around the world this year, and generative AI deepfakes have already proliferated.

OpenAI, Google and other AI companies have been working on tech to identify deepfakes made with their own tools, but such tech is still unproven. Some AI experts think deepfake detectors will never be completely effective.

Earlier this year, a group affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party posted AI-generated audio of a candidate in the Taiwanese elections purportedly endorsing another. However, the politician, Foxconn owner Terry Gou, didn’t endorse the other politician.

In January, voters in the New Hampshire primaries received a robocall that purported to be from President Biden but was quickly found to be AI. Last week, a Democratic operative who said he commissioned the robocall was indicted on a charge of voter suppression and impersonating a candidate.

OpenAI’s report detailed how the five groups used the company’s tech in their attempted influence operations. Spamouflage, a previously known group originating in China, used OpenAI’s tech to research activity on social media and write posts in Chinese, Korean, Japanese and English, the company said. An Iranian group known as the International Union of Virtual Media also used OpenAI’s tech to create articles that it published on its site.

Bad Grammar, the previously unknown group, used OpenAI tech to help make a program that could automatically post on the messaging app Telegram. Bad Grammar then used OpenAI tech to generate posts and comments in Russian and English arguing that the United States should not support Ukraine, according to the report.

The report also found that an Israeli political campaign firm called Stoic used OpenAI to generate pro-Israel posts about the Gaza war and target them at people in Canada, the United States and Israel, OpenAI said. On Wednesday, Facebook owner Meta also publicized Stoic’s work, saying it removed 510 Facebook and 32 Instagram accounts used by the group. Some of the accounts were hacked, while others were of fictional people, the company told reporters.

The accounts in question often commented on pages of well-known individuals or media organizations, posing as pro-Israel American college students, African Americans and others. The comments supported the Israeli military and warned Canadians that “radical Islam” threatened liberal values there, Meta said.

AI came into play in the wording of some comments, which struck real Facebook users as odd and out of context. The operation fared poorly, the company said, attracting only about 2,600 legitimate followers.

Meta acted after the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab discovered the network on X.

Over the past year, disinformation researchers have suggested AI chatbots could be used to have long, detailed conversations with specific people online, trying to sway them in a certain direction. AI tools could also potentially ingest large amounts of data on individuals and tailor messages directly to them.

OpenAI found neither of those more sophisticated uses of AI, Nimmo said. “It is very much an evolution rather than revolution,” he said. “None of that is to say that we might not see that in the future.”

Joseph Menn contributed to this report.

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