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Meta has recently announced a significant shift in its ad disclosure policy: starting next year, advertisers on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram will be required to disclose whether artificial intelligence (AI) or other software was used to create or alter images or audio in political ads. Notably, this mandate extends to those instances in which AI has been employed to fabricate wholly artificial yet highly realistic people or events.

That change reveals a new breed of concerns relating to the use of AI technology in the arena of political advertising. The potential of AI for deception and manipulation, particularly during the partisan whirlwind of election seasons, has been widely recognized. Conjuring pseudo-events or fictitious characters under the guise of realism might seem like the stuff of science fiction, but given the rapid pace of AI development, such capabilities are a stark reality.

In reaction to this policy overhaul, Meta will add notices to those ads which have been crafted or transformed via digital tools, aiming to educate viewers about the technological processes behind the content. The purpose is transparent: to foster a degree of critical scepticism among consumers, to equip them to differentiate between reality and manipulation.

Fact-checking partners of Meta, including a unit of AFP, have been granted the ability to label content as "altered" should they believe it could mislead the public. Being in the age of 'deepfakes', doctoring images and videos to a degree where they appear factual has become frighteningly simple. A discerning lens has become a vital asset.

Historically, the worldwide web has been celebrated as a platform for democratizing information and providing a conduit for free expression. But as we move further into the 21st century, concerns about AI's potential for misinformation and manipulation threaten to overshadow those ideals. The new measures by Meta represent a proactive attempt to nip this emerging threat in the bud.

Simultaneously, Microsoft has also announced its efforts to shield elections from tech-based threats. They'll release tools designed to help campaigns fend off AI threats such as fabricated imagery. The exact specifics of these tools remain to be revealed; however, the overall thrust is clear — the tech world is awake to the potential disruption AI could bring to the integrity of democratic processes.

Nonetheless, questions and challenges abound for these initiatives. AI detection can be a tricky business, given the rapid improvement in the quality of 'deepfakes.' An overzealous approach to labelling content as 'altered' might edge into the territory of suppressive censorship, potentially infringing on the rights of content creators.

There’s also an open question on whether audiences will remain vigilant or become desensitized over time to such warnings. How will they react to knowing they’re consuming an AI-altered advert? The resulting effects on viewers' perceptions, behaviors, and decision processes are fascinatingly unpredictable.

Yet the sheer commitment shown by Meta and Microsoft underlines an important trend: Tech companies are recognizing, and responding to, the potential negative impact of their own inventions. They are striving to strike a delicate balance between technological progress and the potential for manipulation these advances can create.

Coalescing these policy changes indicates a pivot towards a future where technology will be held more accountable than ever before. It will be interesting, and potentially life-changing, to see how these policies play out. They might well lead us down the path towards a more thoroughly informed, critically aware digital citizenry – a development that would certainly be a game-changer for the age of digital democracy.