Can democracy withstand the generative AI revolution?

Clovis McEvoy
February 14, 2024

Generative AI is a double edged sword: sharp enough to create new forms of participation, or to sever democratic traditions. In a year when 2 billion people will vote in democratic elections, it is up to us to determine what happens next.

At two billion people, more humans will vote in elections this year than at any point in human history. This comes as one of humanity's biggest technological breakthroughs, generative AI, is reshaping our social landscape in real time. A flood of fake news lies on the horizon, and AI juggernauts OpenAI and Meta are both stepping up their ‘AI detection’ features to prevent election abuse.

In 2016, democratic societies woke up to the influence of social media disinformation too late. In 2024 we must be proactive and forward looking. How can AI help global democracy? How can potential harms be countered.

Let’s start with the good news. AI may remove one of the biggest barriers that keep regular people from running for government: resources.

Across the world, the price of running for elected office has risen from the prohibitive to the impossible. In America, presidential candidates amass billions dollars to be competitive, the major German political parties typically spend €200 million each in an election year, and even the tens of millions spent by Britain’s leading parties is an enormous sum. The influence of money in politics shapes the type of candidates who get to run, and the kind of policies they propose.

Generative AI is a step towards levelling the playing field. Smaller, independent campaigners will generate adverts without hiring production companies, shape campaign messages with pinpoint precision without expensive analysts, and will likely automate some of their communications with chatbots.

Of course, these possibilities cut both ways. And the barrier to entry is lowered for everyone, including bad actors who see misinformation and voter suppression as valid weapons in the pursuit of victory.

We are already seeing deepfake audio and video targeting both of Britain’s two leading Labour and Conservative parties, whilst deepfake phone calls urged American voters in January’s New Hampshire Democratic Primary not to show up at the polls.

The most obvious risk has already happened: it’s likely that an AI deepfake swung Slovakia’s general election in October last year. Taiwan is experiencing similar attacks from the Chinese government.

More people than ever will vote in democratic elections in 2024 than at any point in history.

AI is an emerging technology in which the rules are still yet to be written, but any damage done to democracy could well bring deep, long-lasting scars. At the same time, social media companies that have received criticism for their impact on democracy in the past are trying to step up their act this time round. Meta, for example, is leading the AI industry to monitor and detect AI generated images, to mitigate the risks of politicised deepfakes.

Governments are not sitting idle either. In 2019, California became the first state to regulate AI in political adverts, prohibiting political deepfakes and requiring disclosure for AI-generated media. Today, 15 states have followed that lead and begun to legislate on the issue. There is a gathering momentum to close the barn door before the horse bolts.

AI manipulation is already happening.

Yet time is short. The Center for American Progress has published detailed policy recommendations to help platforms cope with the next generation of misinformation, but, considering that some of the biggest social media companies have recently downsized (or laid off) their election safety teams, it is unlikely that these recommendations can be enforced on a global scale.

Against a backdrop of rising illiberalism, elections have begun and AI-powered interference is happening now. In a world where the big internet platforms increasingly have the power of modern feudal lords, this is simply not good enough. AI manipulation is already happening, accelerating the recent trend towards global illiberalism that has seen 1.6 billion people lose democratic rights since 2016.

Eight years on, over 2 billion people across 50 countries will head to the polls in 2024. For our own sake, let alone our descendants, this cannot be the year that AI subverts the democratic process. Instead, it must be a year in which technology helped democracy to flourish across the globe. It will take the effort of all of us, working together – but, then again, that’s democracy.

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Clovis McEvoy
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Clovis is a New Zealand born writer, journalist, and educator working at the meeting point between music and technological innovation. He is also an active composer and sound artist, and his virtual reality and live-electronic works have been shown in over fifteen countries around the world.