DeSantis Campaign Uses AI Deepfakes in Attack Ad Against Trump, Prompting Backlash

The fake images portrayed the former president embracing Dr. Anthony Fauci

DeSantis Campaign Uses AI Deepfakes in Attack Ad Against Trump, Prompting Backlash
President Donald Trump is greeted by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis at Southwest Florida International Airport on Oct. 16, 2020. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)
Naveen Athrappully

Florida’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and his 2024 presidential campaign have come under criticism for using fake images generated with artificial intelligence (AI) depicting former President Donald Trump with Dr. Anthony Fauci.

A Twitter account called DeSantis War Room shared a video showing several images of Trump and Fauci, three of which depicted Trump hugging and kissing Fauci on the face with the caption “REAL LIFE TRUMP,” suggesting a close relationship.

“Donald Trump became a household name by FIRING countless people *on television.* But when it came to Fauci …,” the DeSantis War Room account said in the tweet.

However, the three images showing Trump hugging and kissing Fauci were later identified as fake and AI-generated by AFP Fact Check.

“These images contain many signs indicating that they were AI-generated,” Matthew Stamm, an associate professor at Drexel University who specializes in detecting falsified images and videos, told AFP.

“For example, if you look closely at Donald Trump's hair in the top-left, bottom-middle, and bottom-right images, you can see that it contains inconsistent textures and is significantly blurrier than other nearby content such as his ears or other regions of his face.”

AFP could not independently determine the origin of the three pictures showing Trump embracing Fauci. A reverse image search for original sources did not yield any results, but AFP was able to identify the other three photos—which show Trump and Fauci simply standing or sitting near each other—as genuine images from March 2020.

“It was sneaky to intermix what appears to be authentic photos with fake photos, but these three images are almost certainly AI generated,” Hany Farid, a professor at the University of California–Berkeley and an expert in digital forensics, misinformation, and image analysis, told AFP.

Backlash Against DeSantis

The DeSantis campaign’s attempt to present fake images as real has attracted severe criticism online.

“Smearing Donald Trump with fake AI images is completely unacceptable. I’m not sharing them, but we’re in a new era. Be even more skeptical of what you see on the internet,” Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) said in a June 8 tweet.

Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’ rapid response director, attempted to justify the use of fake AI images by pointing out an image shared by Trump that was edited to portray the Florida governor riding a rhinoceros.

“I think this might be an AI-generated image. Who knows?” Pushaw said in her June 8 tweet.

Donald Trump Jr. dismissed Pushaw's defense.

“It's also hilarious to watch the DeSantis campaign actually try to justify getting caught red-handed using Deep Fake images in their ad with the caption ‘real life Trump,' by comparing it to my dad posting a joke meme of Ron riding his favorite animal,” he said in a June 8 tweet.

Threat of AI Fake Content

The threat posed by AI deepfakes in spreading misinformation during elections and influencing voters has been widely discussed ever since AI tools began proliferating over the past year.

Some have suggested that election campaigns would need rapid response teams to quickly debunk false claims. However, there are concerns that the debunking may not achieve similar levels of audience reach compared to the original deepfake ads.

In a May 3 statement, the American Association of Political Consultants (AAPC) condemned the use of “deceptive generative AI content” in political campaigns, calling it a “troubling challenge” to free and fair debate on political ideas.

“While the public’s trust in institutions and campaigns has been shaken in recent decades, the use of ‘deep fake’ generative AI content is a dramatically different and dangerous threat to democracy. The AAPC Professional Code of Ethics currently clearly condemns false and misleading statements,” the organization said.

“Deep fake generative AI is contrary to the Code of Ethics because, at its core, ‘deep fake’ content is a deception and has no place in legitimate, ethical campaigns. Therefore, AAPC’s Code of Ethics prohibits the use of ‘deep fake’ generative AI content.”

DeSantis is the top contender against Trump in the 2024 Republican primaries. However, there is a wide gulf between the two in terms of voter support, according to multiple polls.

A survey of 1,520 adults in late May by Yahoo News/YouGov revealed that Trump had the support of 53 percent of potential Republican primary voters, up from 48 percent in early May before DeSantis announced his candidacy. Meanwhile, DeSantis’ support shrunk from 28 percent to 25 percent during this period.

A June 6 poll by Morning Consult shows Trump with 56 percent support in the 2024 GOP primaries, more than double DeSantis’ 22 percent.
In a May 25 radio interview with “Good Morning New Hampshire” host Jack Heath, DeSantis suggested that Trump “knows” DeSantis could win the GOP nomination in 2024, which he said is the reason the former president has been consistently targeting DeSantis.

“I think a lot of what he’s doing is showing everybody that he understands that I’ve got a good chance to beat him because he doesn’t criticize anybody else now,” DeSantis said. “It is only me.”