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AI deepfakes bring back the voices of gun violence victims. They're still begging Congress for change.

"Our stories need to be heard, and who better to tell them than us?"
AI deepfakes bring back the voices of gun violence victims. They're still begging Congress for change. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

The fight for national gun reform — a cause that has galvanized young voters and become an organizing point of reference for a new generation of leaders — is treading into uncharted waters.

On Feb. 14, youth-focused gun reform organizations March For Our Lives and Change the Ref announced their latest joint campaign aimed at disrupting the congressional norm: A website called The Shotline that lets gun reform supporters directly contact their representatives using automated voicemails. And while you might say that's a standard, even basic, strategy used by advocates across issues, this one is a little different. The automated messages aren't conversational prompts or jarring statistics delivered to the voicemails of congressional offices, but the actual, revived voices of people who were killed by gun violence.

Never has a campaign of its kind taken the phrase "giving voice to the voiceless" so literally.

The Shotline uses AI voice cloning — more popularly referred to as audio deepfakes — to generate calls-to-action from the mouths of victims. It's of course also going to generate some raised eyebrows, as monitoring both audio and video deepfakes have long presented a challenge to tech companies and federal regulators. Last week, the FCC deemed AI-generated robocalls illegal, and AI scams, like recent voter suppression attempts using a robocall of President Joe Biden, are top-of-mind ahead of the presidential election.

Across industries, AI chatbots and voice cloning have stirred debate about the ethical implications of creating, and then essentially owning, artificial depictions of human beings. Many wonder about the psychological effects, positive and negative, of doing this for deceased loved ones.

The hauntingly clear voices of young victims of gun violence are perhaps the most jarring of these examples.

In a statement to the Guardian, MullenLowe, the advertising agency behind the campaign, explained that The Shotline's calls should be exempt from recent FCC robocall bans because they aren't autodialed (but rather initiated by individuals through the website), are made directly to landlines, and provide a callback number.

The Shotline's voicemails were created by creative agency and AI specialists Edisen, using audio provided by victims’ families combined with deep machine learning to create a computerized version of each victim’s voice.

In one voicemail example, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School senior Joaquin Oliver, whose parents started Change the Ref after his death, calls out careless congressional leaders. "Hello, I’m Joaquin Oliver. Six years ago, I was a senior at Parkland. Many students and teachers were murdered on Valentine’s Day that year by a person using an AR-15, but you don’t care. You never did. It’s been six years, and you’ve done nothing, not a thing to stop all the shootings that have happened since," his AI depiction says.

Oliver's simulated voice continues:

"The thing is, I died that day in Parkland. My body was destroyed by a weapon of war. I’m back today because my parents used AI to re-create my voice to call you. Other victims like me will be calling too, again and again, to demand action. How many calls will it take for you to care? How many dead voices will you hear before you finally listen? Every day, your inaction creates more voices. If you fail to act now, we’ll find somebody who will."

Other voicemails include the recreated voices of Uziyah Garcia (10 years old), Ethan Song (15 years old), Jaycee Webster (20 years old), Michael Baughan (30 years old), and Akilah Dasilva (23 years old).

"Some might judge me because I’m using artificial intelligence to re-create the voice of my murdered son," said Joaquin's father, Manuel Oliver, in a statement to the press. "Let us judge politicians that use their organic intelligence to do nothing to save lives."

In the several hours since the website went live, more than 6,000 AI calls have gone out to representatives.

The gun reform movement's AI-pivot aligns with March For Our Lives' ongoing strategy of meeting the rest of the country where it's at in order to enact common sense legislation. And although it stirs up the murkiest of waters in terms of tech's role in social activism, it reflects something else, too: the desperation of advocates who have been trying to build momentum and create change for decades. Perhaps such desperation is inevitable when one's efforts have been met with antagonistic and slow-moving politicians, and a general public that has been weathered into apathy from repeated mass atrocities.

"We'll call again, and again, and again, until change is made," the voices of victims of chant together in a video announcing the campaign. "Because our stories need to be heard, and who better to tell them, than us?"

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