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Pakistan elections 2024: How an imprisoned Imran Khan is using AI to campaign

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Pakistan elections 2024: How an imprisoned Imran Khan is using AI to campaign

A voice clone of ex-prime minister Imran Khan giving an impassioned speech on his behalf was released by his party. Named ‘virtual rally’, the four-minute message was hosted on the social media by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) despite internet disruptions

FP Explainers December 19, 2023 08:46:40 IST Pakistan elections 2024: How an imprisoned Imran Khan is using AI to campaign

The PTI organised the internet rally to avoid a government ban on public demonstrations as the party prepares for general elections on 8 February. File image/AP

Pakistan is set to hold general elections in February 2024. Despite being behind bars, Imran Khan, the chief of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and former prime minister, has actively joined the election campaign, thanks to artificial intelligence.

On Monday, a voice clone of the Opposition leader giving an impassioned speech on his behalf was released by his party. Named “virtual rally” the four-minute message was hosted on the social media by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) despite internet disruptions.

Khan’s speech was generated from text he had written from prison and had approved by his lawyers, PTI said.

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Imran Khan has been jailed since August and is being tried for leaking confidential data, allegations he claims are fabricated in order to prevent him from running in the February general election.

The AI generated speech

The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party used artificial intelligence to create a four-minute message from the 71-year-old, headlining a “virtual rally” hosted on social media overnight Sunday into Monday despite internet disruptions that NetBlocks said were consistent with previous attempts to censor Imran Khan.

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf said Imran Khan sent a shorthand script through lawyers which was fleshed out into his rhetorical lingo.

The text was then dubbed into audio using a tool from AI firm ElevenLabs, which boasts the ability to create a “voice clone” from existing speech samples.

Also Read: Where will bankrupt Pakistan get funds to hold elections?

“My fellow Pakistanis, I would first like to praise the social media team for this historic attempt,” the voice mimicking Imran Khan said.

“Maybe you all are wondering how I am doing in jail,” the stilted voice adds. “Today, my determination for real freedom is very strong.”

The audio was broadcast at the end of a five-hour live-stream of speeches by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters on Facebook, X and YouTube, and was overlaid with historic footage of Imran Khan and still images.

It was bookended with genuine video clips from the onetime cricket star’s former speeches according to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, but a caption appeared at intervals flagging it as the “AI voice of Imran Khan based on his notes”.

“This was a no-brainer for us, when Imran Khan is no longer there to actually meet at a political rally,” said US-based Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf social media chief Jibran Ilyas. “It was to get over the suppression.”

Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf was the first political party in Pakistan to widely harness the potential of social media, using apps to target younger audiences who carried them to power five years ago.

“We wanted to get in election mode,” Ilyas told AFP. “No Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf political rally is complete without Imran Khan.”

Skirting censorship

The PTI organised the internet rally to avoid a government ban on public demonstrations as the party prepares for general elections on 8 February.

“Our party is not allowed to hold public rallies. Our people are being kidnapped and their families are being harassed,” the AI-generated voice impersonating Khan said in the footage.

“History will remember your sacrifices,” the stilted voice continued, referring to the months-long state crackdown on PTI, which has seen dozens of party leaders arrested or “forced to quit” the organisation.

State censors banned Imran Khan from airwaves earlier this year after his brief arrest in May sparked riots.

Global network monitor NetBlocks said social media was restricted for seven hours starting late Sunday in an incident “consistent with previous instances of internet censorship” targeting Imran Khan.

Nonetheless, the virtual rally was viewed by more than 4.5 million people across Facebook, X and YouTube.

Also Read: Will Pakistan’s elections be delayed again?

“It wasn’t very convincing,” said 38-year-old business manager Syed Muhammad Ashar in the eastern city of Lahore. “The grammar was strange too. But I will give them marks for trying.”

“Frankly, nothing can replace a real rally and a real speech.”

But media worker Hussain Javed Afroze praised the digitally-delivered oration. “No other party uses technology like Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf does,” the 42-year-old said.

“These are new tools, so I think it’s a positive thing to use them.”

Analysts have long warned bad actors may use artificial intelligence to impersonate leaders and sow disinformation, but far less has been said on how the technology may be used to skirt state suppression.

Hugely-popular Imran Khan was ousted last year after falling out with Pakistan’s military leaders, who analysts agree influenced his rise to power in 2018.

In the aftermath he led an unprecedented campaign of defiance, accusing top brass of conspiring with the United States to eject him and saying senior officers plotted an assassination attempt which wounded him.

After supporters rioted over his May arrest, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has been targeted by a huge crackdown by the military establishment which has directly ruled Pakistan for more than half its history.

Pakistan’s election commission confirmed on Friday that elections will be held on 8 February.

Whilst behind bars Imran Khan was replaced as the leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf but he remains the figurehead of the party.

With inputs from AFP

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