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The future of news? Israeli anchors launch AI-powered TikTok broadcast

Israeli news anchors are becoming avatars on a TikTok-based news broadcast that claims to be the world’s first fully AI-powered news network.

The broadcast, known as ACT News, is led by longtime Israeli journalist Miri Michaeli, who most recently worked for Channel 13 news. She has been joined this week by Amit Segal, a veteran Channel 12 political reporter and analyst, whose AI-generated avatar will provide insight in multiple languages.

The AI-generated voices of Segal and Michaeli sound markedly different than those of their real-life counterparts, and the lip movements do not always quite match up, but the casual viewer may easily mistake the videos for real recordings.

The initiative — which currently has fewer than 20,000 followers on TikTok — was spearheaded by Michaeli and longtime political operative Moshe Klughaft. The organization has touted its videos as garnering “some 40 million views worldwide,” but later admitted to The Times of Israel to paying to promote a “limited” number of its clips on the platform, which boosts views.

The use of AI in newsrooms has been a hotly contested issue in recent months, with journalism watchdogs expressing concerns about accuracy, transparency and the ethics behind presenting such content as being humanly produced. The popularity of generative AI tools, like Google’s ChatGPT, have raised red flags across industries, given the systems’ tendency to spout falsehoods that could go unnoticed by the average news consumer. The concern is likely to be heightened if people are producing content in a foreign language that they do not speak.

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Such tools are also based on mining enormous troves of public online data in order to generate the content, leading to allegations of plagiarism if they are presented as original creations.

אני לא משוכנע שהעולם בנוי לשני עמית סגל, ייתכן שגם אחד זה קצת יותר מדי. בכל מקרה שמח להשיק את דמות הai שלי הבוקר בactnews עם פרשנות חדשה.

תבינו, לא צילמתי ולא הקלטתי את זה, והלוואי עליי האנגלית הזו. פשוט הזנתי טקסט למערכת @ACTNewslive והשאר קרה מעצמו.

— עמית סגל Amit Segal (@amit_segal) July 30, 2023

The network says that Segal and Michaeli will both approve all AI-generated texts spoken on air by their digital clones in advance of broadcasts, “ensuring accuracy and credibility.” The approval of all such statements makes the model not dissimilar to one in which a junior reporter or editor writes scripts for a senior anchor to read on air — except this method cuts jobs for reporting and writing staff.

Until now, the creators said, its several dozen videos had been produced in the traditional fashion, but moving forward all of its clips will be fully AI-generated — both the texts that are spoken and the avatars that present them.

“Like every startup, our project was born out of a personal need,” said Michaeli in a statement. “My dream has always been to be able to report from two places simultaneously, provide in-depth analysis, and film a report simultaneously. Today, we offer this possibility to journalists all over the world.”

The company says it will be offering news clips in eight languages, although it only named English, Spanish and German. A Hebrew TikTok account for the network launched last month.

A video of Segal speaking Spanish in a news update on the recent national election in Spain was posted on Sunday. The clip had been removed by Monday, and a spokesman for the organization said it had been deleted by TikTok and they were working to have it restored.

“I’m not sure if the world can handle two Amit Segals, perhaps even one is too much,” tweeted Segal on Sunday alongside a clip of his inaugural appearance. “Either way I’m happy to launch my AI character on ACT News this morning with some new analysis.” To clarify, he added, “I didn’t film or record this, and I wish my English sounded like that. I just entered text into the ACT News system, and the rest happened by itself.”

ACT News co-founders Miri Michaeli 9right) and Moshe Klughaft (Liran Mor)

The network, which originally presented itself just a few months ago as providing English-language diplomacy on behalf of Israel, now bills itself exclusively as a multilingual news network powered by AI presenting “current affairs broadcasts” aimed at the TikTok audience. A spokesperson said that Michaeli and Klughaft decided to pivot from Israel advocacy to news content “soon after” the initial launch.

Yet in a video a month ago posted and then deleted from TikTok (but still available on other platforms), Michaeli slammed then-US ambassador to Israel Tom Nides for a tweet in which he said he was “deeply concerned about the civilian deaths and injuries” during an Israeli military operation in the West Bank, sparking accusations that he was drawing equivalencies between victims of terror and slain Palestinian gunmen.

“Imagine this. Right after 9/11 an ambassador of an American ally nation would publish a statement expressing concern for all those killed: yes, those who died in the Twin Towers and those who crashed the planes at them,” Michaeli said in the since-deleted clip. “Sounds crazy, right?”

Other videos deleted from the account’s TikTok page include one from June lamenting a terror attack in “the community of Hermesh, in Samaria, Israel,” and another from May that slammed New York City councilmembers who voted against the establishment of “End Jew Hatred Day.”

In one clip posted in April, Michaeli called protests against Israel in Berlin “illegitimate” and “horrific,” adding that such calls were “especially infuriating when they come from Germany.” A few days later, a clip from Michaeli slammed an “outrageous claim” aired by CNN in which a Palestinian woman called Jewish worshipers visiting the Temple Mount a “provocation.”

In April, Michaeli wrote on Instagram that she and Klughaft were motivated to launch the initiative due to “frustration from the way that we are presented in the world again and again, as well as a huge love for this country.”

The new version of the network, officially launched on Sunday, pledges to focus “on positive news stories and showcasing uplifting events from around the world.”

@MiriMichaeli VS @CNN
תשפטו בעצמכם.

— Yosef Grossman???????????????? (@GrossmanYosef) April 22, 2023

Klughaft has been the subject of a number of political scandals, and has worked for both former prime minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has been the architect of campaigns demonizing left-wing figures as “foreign agent moles” and depicting a former Meretz MK with a horn on her forehead. He briefly worked with ex-Meretz leader Tamar Zandberg, who later apologized for hiring him following the backlash.

He has also been involved in political campaigns overseas, including a 2018 vote in Georgia in which he was accused of inserting claims of antisemitism into the race. Last year, he was tapped to join Netanyahu’s campaign, but then stepped back just a few days later due to “opposition from outside elements.”

In a statement, Klughaft claimed that the new technology will free up reporters “to focus on the core of the journalistic work: investigations, exposés, exclusive stories and personal interviews.” Such technology, he said, will “dramatically reduce costs for media companies worldwide.”

In a press release, ACT News said it had already completed one round of investment valuing the company at $7.5 million, and is slated to launch a second round soon. The network said it was in talks to add AI versions of US and UK news anchors as well as to add additional Israeli personalities.

The company says its investors include Yoram Bauman, Ron Zuckerman, Ofer Krezner, Mark Hager and Ofer Yanay. Its website positions itself as not just offering AI-produced news, but also selling its technology to companies seeking to use AI to create its own content, writing: “This is how everyone will produce news in the future.”