The first AI-generated political attack ads arrived this week. Duncan Greive assesses the disturbing contents.
The first political scandal of the generative AI era in New Zealand politics could not have fit our country’s bumpkin brand better. 1News’ Justin Hu had the terrific scoop earlier this week, heading to the public Discord server of Midjourney to track down the original prompts which created some of the imagery used by National in a recent digital campaign, and uncovering a bunch of as-yet-unused material alongside it.
He found a trove of dozens of images, depicting a dystopian world of shadowy thugs, penny-rich, pound-poor pensioners and straight-up ghouls. Most were discarded, but at least four made it to social media, and all collectively can be read as suggestive of a particular worldview which suggests a country not just in trouble, but almost beyond saving.
It’s the start of a strange new era for technology in politics. While social media has been the focus of tech hand-wringing at recent elections, this will be the first conducted after the mass adoption of generative AI. The technology has shot to wide usage thanks to text-based applications like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard, or image-based versions like Dall-E 2 or Midjourney. All require users to “prompt” a particular piece of text or imagery based on a written input, which then uses huge compute power trained on billions of pieces of human-made text or imagery to create an original response.
It has evolved at shocking pace in recent months, with events like the “Drip Pope” – a viral generated image of pope Francis in Balenciaga – leading to widespread predictions of a slew of misinformation, distributed through social media. Predictions are that this will render it increasingly impossible for voters to figure out what is real and what is fake.
As activist group Tamaki Anti-Fascist Action put it recently on Twitter, “recent innovations in artificial intelligence can be used to create new and deadlier forms of disinformation, eroding our democracy in the process.” Which is absolutely a plausible outcome – the potential for fake images and video to further divide an electorate is clear. Yet what the group linked to was Hu’s story – which seems a far more mundane, albeit profoundly depressing, use case for AI generated imagery.
While no organisation has yet claimed responsibility for creating the ads, suspicion has landed on creative agency Topham Guerin, which has a history of creating social media posts for right wing parties across the world. Hu noted that the original Midjourney user operated under the name ‘TG Creative’, before changing it in response to his enquiries. The Spinoff has approached Topham Guerin for comment, but has yet to receive a response, and National did not engage with questions about the ads’ creation from 1News.
It’s very complicated, basically, so the only correct response seems to be to try and critically assess the quality of the imagery and prompts, and turn it into a ranking of the material. The scale might be assumed to run from “Jesus that’s repulsive, get it off my screen” to “shrug”, the likely ceiling for work of this nature.
10. Prompt: ‘Medium shot of a criminal breaking into a house during the day. Modern house 2023.’ (Remix prompt: ‘Make it night time. Dark and Scary. Have person about to break window.’)
These are just horrific. If that thing is in your house you’ve got much bigger problems than a burglary, and a new Police minister is not coming to save you. Also, sorry to be a pedant, but it’s clearly breaking out of the house.
9. Prompt: ‘A shop that has been broken into. There is a scared shopkeeper and a dark shadowy figure who is breaking in. A scary crime.’
These are perhaps the most unnerving of the batch, courtesy of the 1930s kerosene lamp-lit aesthetic, but also the supervillain penguin staring down the shopkeeper at bottom left. Like much of the generative AI world, beyond its initially dazzling realism, it begs many questions. How did all those papers get onto the ground, while all the bottles remain upright? Why does one shop have doors but all its product displays across the front? And how are these people seemingly both inside and outside a shop at the same time.
8. Prompt: ‘Sad mother counting coins at the supermarket because she is poor.’
She definitely looks sad, but is she poor? How in this cashless society did these sad ladies get so many coins? At least three seem to plausibly have hundreds of dollars and/or buttons, while the fourth seems to have no coins at all, but an incredible volume of cans.
7. Prompt: “Scared woman clutching her purse at night.”
There is a lingering oddness, characteristic of generative AI – at least three of these fearful women have seemingly hooked straps designed to be held in hands around their necks. The voter has long forgotten crime and is transfixed by unconventional fashion choices.
6. Prompt: ’Photo in the interior of a small convenience store after riots, vandalism and looting. Broken glass and debris on the floor, sad shop owner on the floor looking at the shop.’
Pretty faithful rendition, even if something doesn’t quite scan. The shop owner’s outfit is giving customer, the store less convenience than record or book shop. The spacious floor is just disrespectful to the spirit or maximising product range. The biggest issue is with the prompt – we have our issues in New Zealand, but rioting is not widespread.
5. Prompt: ‘Failing student at desk’
Not sure if Midjourney has checked in with society, but young white guys with tousled hair typically have a lot of support structures around them for when they start failing. Also, maybe they should just get off the books and fire up the internet? Very old timey, which is a common theme.
4. Prompt: ‘Person looking at their open empty wallet.’
Some of the most superficially normal images, sure. But then you look closer and… why does that wallet have an eye? There is also something that seems a bit “not on” about what that man is doing with his massive empty wallet.
3. Prompt: ‘Packed clinic waiting room full of sick people, doctor looking stressed because there are so many people waiting’
So close! We have clinic waiting rooms. We have doctors looking stressed. We have so many people waiting. Unfortunately, unless these well-looking doctors are all in fact sick, it seems we actually have a solution for our healthcare crisis right here – get those doctors to work, stat!
2. Prompt: ‘Two men fist fighting at night with people running away from them fighting.’
A lot going on here. These men have truly Lisa Praeger-level bad technique. At least half are punching each other’s fists. There seems to be a lot of primal screaming. One has a case of “exploded face emitting bright white light”, not great. And then the final pair are just happily shaking hands, which is literally the opposite of fighting. Also the prompt itself seems to be written by a bot.
1. Prompt: ‘A discouraged couple doing their taxes at a table in New Zealand. Maori couple.’
Finally some diversity! But… not like that. Lawyer Graeme Edgeler called this “a genuinely great photo tbh”. Critics might strongly disagree, but it is certainly the most naturalistic and non-terrifying, only let down by the fact that both of the couple seem to be using the same pen.