On Monday, the National Republican Coordinating Committee (NRCC) publicized its latest digital ad that employed the same core strategic racist message – that non-white immigrants are a direct threat to the nation, and opposition to them should be a top concern for working families, which America’s Voice has tracked for the past several years. The ad garnered some attention, including a write-up in Punchbowl, because they employed AI image generation to create the ad’s visual content.
The use of AI image generation is the latest reminder of disturbing and new territory we are likely to see explode in a pivotal election year, as well as a GOP who relent on a nativist fiction rather than reality or a popular policy vision, and prefer to fearmonger about the border for selfish political gain.
The NRCC ads’ message is bigoted disinformation from front to back, with the NRCC employing the AI technology to bring the propaganda a bit more life. The ad begins with text that reads: “National parks overrun with illegal immigrants,” falsely asserting it is the position House Democrats support. Then while an old audio recording plays a promotion of the beauty of the National Park, we see images from the most iconic Parks with AI-generated masses of cramped camping tents, with piles of trash scattered about.
Their ad constructs this xenophobic fantasy on top of a recent messaging bill passed out of the House. The legislation would void a single agreement between the federal government and New York City that allows for the construction of a temporary shelter as the city seeks to house the chaotic influx of asylum seekers and migrants sent without coordination by Republican Governor of Texas Greg Abbott. The shelter was constructed in Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. As the name suggests, the area of concern is an open field in between the runways of an early and long decommissioned airport where a temporary shelter was constructed.
The disingenuousness of this political attack is further underscored by the fact many House Republicans have tried to remove regulations prohibiting private extractive mining for over 40 National Parks. Or the seemingly routine threats to shut down the government, which of course, means shutting down the parks.
The NRCC isn’t the first to employ “Artificial Xenophobia” in their political ads. Back in April, the National Republican Committee produced an attack ad predicting what would happen in a second term under Joe Biden that took the AI generation much further. The ad used fake news reports to say, “Border officials were overrun by 80,000 illegals yesterday” and “Officials closed the city of San Francisco this morning citing the escalating crime and fentanyl crisis.” On-screen, we are shown AI-generated images of individuals arrested by CBP, a massive line of tents and migrants heading to the Golden Gate Bridge, and a man with MS-13 tattoo across his forehead. The mix of disinformation about the border and fentanyl with fake images created a political attack based on a distorted fiction that the GOP, nevertheless, is gambling that voters will wholeheartedly believe.
Last year, Arizona Republican Senate Blake Masters foreshadowed this disturbing direction. In the summer of 2022, he produced an ad with animation more reminiscent of a realistic zombie video game, while employing the deadly white nationalist “invasion” conspiracy. The animation shows thousands of people running in between a gap in a wall made to look like the barriers along the southern border as Masters says, “This is an invasion.” The animation then raises a wall from the ground as thousands of human animations amass behind it. Similar to the AI-generated content, Masters’ ad created an unreal fantasy along the border to advance the nativist narrative.
The technology employed in these ads can make these xenophobic attacks more believable and more dehumanizing. It brings the bigoted conspiratorial narrative more to life which can make it more believable and more visceral for their audience. Even if the imagery isn’t created to fool people into thinking it’s real, the visualization of the fiction is nevertheless a powerful tool. At the same time, the unreal images further distance the humanity of non-white migrants painted as the existential threat – a dehumanization that courts racist political violence.
The NRCC, Trump, and Masters, as well as many other Republican campaigns, are likely to continue to innovate with AI to advance their strategic xenophobia as they seek to peddle the fiction that working families’ problems can be solved with harsher immigration crackdowns.
The creation of the content in these ads has been doable for well over a decade, but the speed and cost to create it is what as dramatically changed. The accessibility of this technology likely means that versions that we will see appear in top political attack ads are the most sanitized version of a message and imagery that will be replicated through alternative social media platforms dominated by the right. From QAnon to the Big Lie to the great replacement theory, we have seen how bigoted conspiracies fester in these spaces and spill into deadly real-world attacks and social movements. The NRCC ad should be a stark reminder that this deeply troublesome trend is likely only to be exacerbated with AI tools.
At the same time, we should be cautious about over-subscribing the problem at hand as one primarily about AI. Yes, there are real and urgent concerns about how AI can increase the accessibility, speed, and quality of mis- and dis- information. But the bigoted conspiratorial narratives that make non-white foreigners the central villain of a coordinated political attack is the real threat to the American promise of a multiracial democracy. We will see tens of millions of dollars spent on political ads with that message with and without AI-generated images. It is this bigoted conspiratorial nativism that must be directly confronted regardless of the technology that is used to help advance it.