Not Your Father’s Bots

AI Is Making Fake News Look Real

Surveillance images from a U.N. sanctions report purportedly showing a North Korean vessel engaged in illegal trading  United Nations Security Council / REUTERS

North Korean industry is critical to Pyongyang’s economy as international sanctions have already put a chill on its interaction with foreign investors who are traded in the market. Liberty Global Customs, which occasionally ships cargo to North Korea, stopped trading operations earlier this year because of pressure from the Justice Department, according to Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Foreign Trade Committee.

The paragraph above has no basis in reality. It is complete and utter garbage, intended not to be correct but to sound correct. In fact, it wasn’t written by a human at all—it was written by GPT-2, an artificial intelligence system built by OpenAI, an AI research organization based in California.

Disinformation is a serious problem. Synthetic disinformation—written not by humans but by computers—might emerge as an even bigger one. Russia already employs online “trolls” to sow discord; automating such operations could propel its disinformation efforts to new heights.

We conducted a study to see whether synthetic disinformation could generate convincing news stories about complex foreign policy issues. Our results were clear: it can.


While the details of GPT-2 are highly technical, it is, essentially, a program that uses artificial intelligence to synthesize new text. Given a short prompt, GPT-2 can continue the text in the same style. In some cases, the text the software generates is indistinguishable from that written by a human.

The potential for abuse is obvious. The software’s creators at OpenAI worry that bad actors could use GPT-2 to automatically generate misleading news articles, abusive social media posts, and spam. Because of this potential for misuse, OpenAI chose not to release the full version of GPT-2 to the public. Instead the group released a watered-down version that, while still useful for research, entailed fewer risks.

In its current form, GPT-2 cannot easily be configured to convey a specific point of view or make certain arguments. Configuration, however, may not be necessary: depending on the prompt, GPT-2 will

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