Digital Diplomacy’s Next Challenge: Reality in the Age of Visual AI


The ‘middle-ground’ is as important to diplomacy as it is to society. It is in the middle-ground where diplomats can meet and resolve differences. It is in the middle-ground where different citizens, with different opinions, can meet to discuss issues of shared concern. It is therefore in the middle-ground where action may be initiated.

In the case of diplomats, meetings in the middle-ground can result in collective action, be it a diplomatic accord or a shared agenda to be promoted at multilateral institutions. In the case of citizens, meetings in the middle-ground can result in collective actions such as new legislations or the creation of protest movements to advocate in favor or against certain policies. Yet meetings in the middle-ground can only bear fruit if those meeting have a shared definition of reality. If two citizens meet in the middle-ground, with one arguing that Covid19 is a hoax, and the second suggesting that Covid19 is a health risk, they will fail to act collectively. Similarly, if according to one diplomat Russia has not invaded Ukraine, while another argues that there are thousands of Russian troops in Ukraine, they too will also fail to collectively act.

Social media, by nature, fractures reality. Algorithmic filter bubbles create a new world in which different people subscribe to different realities. According to the social media reality of one user, Big Brother is the best show on television. This reality is enforced thanks to social media content, be it TV reviews of Big Brother, posts with stunning scenes from last week’s episode or interviews with the show’s creators. According to the social media reality of another user, Dancing with the Stars is the best show on TV and this reality is also strengthened and enforced thanks to social media content tailored by algorithms. Although these two users subscribe to different realities, these differences are not enough to raise concern. But what happens when social media users’ content deals with important issues such as wars, crises or political scandals? Different realities on social media may prevent citizens from reaching an agreed upon definition of reality and, in turn, prevent citizens from taking collective action.

For instance, according to the reality of some social media users, Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022 launching a full-scale War against the Ukrainian people.  Yet according to the reality of other social media users, Russia invaded Ukraine to prevent a Ukrainian attack on Moscow. And according to the reality of still other social media users, Ukraine attacked Russia following orders from US President Joe Biden while in the reality of other users NATO triggered the War as part of its efforts to weaken Russia. These realities differ from one another greatly yet all of them are enforced and strengthened thanks to social media content, partisan media and biased information sources.

Different realities on social media complicate the task of diplomats as they erode the legitimacy and support necessary to resolve issues through diplomatic action. Diplomacy rests on domestic and global support. Yet social media users may view diplomats’ actions negatively based on their specific reality. Indeed, some social media users may oppose any settlement of the War in Ukraine that does not exact a price from Russia for invading Ukraine. Others would oppose any agreement that does not exact a heavy price from Ukraine, or the US, or NATO for forcing Russia’s hand into a bloody and violent war.

Although social media is already defined by a plurality of realities, this phenomenon may soon accelerate thanks to Generative Visual AI tools. The reason being that in digital societies, images and videos serve an evidentiary purpose. They prove that something did in fact occur.  They serve to validate, strengthen and cement social media realities. Yet now, false images, bearing witness to false and fictitious realities, can be created within a matter of minutes. And although AI images are still not good enough to deceive all social media users, they soon will be, in the process fracturing reality into billions of alternate and even conflicting realities. This will destroy the middle-ground causing great injury to national and international societies.

Last week I sought to create an alternate reality for the Covid19 virus. In my doctored reality, the work on the Covid virus began in the 1950s in the USSR. The virus strain was first discovered by two Soviet sisters who were both scientists at a bio lab outside Moscow. Once the virus was developed, it needed to be stored safely so that it may be used in any altercation with the West. Thus, the virus was stored on a Soviet submarine carrying the strains of many viruses. In 2019, Chinese scientists, working in a Chinese bio lab, replicated the Soviet virus and delivered it to the Chinese military. Although this reality seems fanciful, consider the visual evidence shown below documenting each stage in the development of the Covid virus, visuals created within 20 minutes.

Russian Sisters in Soviet Lab

The Soviet Bio Lab

Covid Virus on Soviet Submarine

Chinese Bio Lab

Delivering Virus to Chinese Military

The question raised by Generative AI, and Visual AI, in particular is not whether these tools may be used to create alternative realities that erode the middle-ground. The question is whether Generative AI will create highly believable alternate realities; realities that people will believe in so passionately that any ability to accept a different reality is eroded. If this is indeed the case, the middle-ground may soon also erode, proving a formidable challenge to diplomats and societies.   

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