The PCSO photo edit: On AI, trust, and media literacy

BAR NONE - Atty. Ian Vincent Manticajon - The Freeman

The controversy surrounding a Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO) photo, which was edited to conceal the identity of a lotto winner receiving a check from an agency official, underscores our vulnerability to disinformation in the age of artificial intelligence (AI).

This vulnerability I am referring to includes susceptibility to disinformation from all sources. In this particular controversy, many people were quickly misled into believing by unverified sources on social media that the PCSO faked its lotto draw winners. This belief was largely driven by the digitally-altered photo.

In fact, the PCSO admitted on Thursday that it had edited the clothes of a Lotto 6/42 jackpot winner in a photo posted on their social media channels. In a PhilStar.com report, the PCSO acknowledged the poor quality of the editing but explained that the editing was done to protect the winner's identity. The agency referred to a case where a previous winner was identified through their clothing, despite their face being covered. The winner shown in the PCSO edited photo is a 47-year-old housewife who won ?43 million in the draw last December 28.

While I question the PCSO's decision to show an edited photo intended to protect the winner's identity, I also lament how quickly many people believe those inclined to undermine the agency's credibility. This is especially concerning when it involves an obviously AI-generated photo from conspiracy theorists, exploiting the controversy by depicting the same PCSO official handing a check to a non-existent person.

AI’s capabilities have now advanced to a point where it can remove a person or object from a photo and realistically fill in the details on the altered portions where the person or object was. In this case, AI seemingly fabricated and filled in the table and other fixtures to replace the removed person or object, ensuring that they blend consistently with the existing table and fixtures in the original photo.

This may just be a supposition based on the current advanced capabilities of generative AI. But the point is that we should not immediately believe everything we see on social media or the internet, unless it comes from trusted sources. Sharing a possibly altered photo to support theories that the PCSO is faking its lotto winners also shows the height of gullibility and a willingness to spread disinformation.

One could easily verify how the PCSO, a government agency, is held accountable for its funds, including the distribution of prizes to lotto draw winners. As a government entity, the PCSO is subject to audits by the Commission on Audit (COA), an independent constitutional body. Therefore, unsubstantiated allegations about the PCSO faking its lotto draw winners can be verified through the COA.

It is hard to imagine that the PCSO, an 88-year-old institution created by Act No. 301 in March 1935, would lack a system of checks and balances, especially considering it now handles billions in funds. In fact, such a system does exist, and its integrity can be verified. Congress, for another, can conduct inquiries regarding PCSO operations, including the integrity of the lottery system, either in aid of legislation or as part of its oversight functions. The PCSO itself has a set of internal controls to confirm the authenticity of winning tickets and prevent fraud.

We should not easily make our own conclusions based on what we read on social media. For those who follow this column, you know my strong stance against disinformation, especially the state-sponsored ones or those coming from powerful interests. But the battle against disinformation must be waged from all sides, not just on disinformation favoring the government or those in power, but also on disinformation coming from irresponsible purveyors of anti-government propaganda. Conjectures and speculations should be approached with a healthy dose of doubt, pending confirmation from trusted sources.

Remember, the ultimate goal of disinformation and misinformation is not just to mislead people. Its most destructive effect is the erosion of trust in any source of information, which in turn undermines people’s faith in our institutions. When people no longer believe in anything, they become vulnerable to manipulation.

In a number of studies that explore the impact of misinformation and disinformation on democracy, these emphasize that misinformation and disinformation can undermine trust in elections and the broader political discourse and governmental institutions. This erosion of trust in authority and institutions “could have long-term negative effects on a country’s ability to solve economic and social problems and find common ground.”

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