AI, elections and democracy

By Dr Dirk Brand on 11 March 2024

Elections will be held in more than 60 countries, including the European Union, in the world in 2024 representing about 50% of the world’s population.  These countries include India, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, Ukraine, United Kingdom and the United States of America.  It is therefore a crucial year for democracy around the world, although the quality of democratic governance differs significantly between all these countries.  Nevertheless, the outcome of these elections is not only important for the respective countries, but it will impact the global political landscape.

The use of technology in elections is not new, but there has been a rapid development of artificial intelligence (AI) during the last few years, in particular the increased use of generative AI such as ChatGPT (Open AI) and Copilot (Microsoft), that could have a significant impact on elections and democracy. These developments create opportunities to enhance electoral efficiency and democracy, but it also raises concerns about the misuse of AI in elections.  Elections are about convincing voters to support a political party and politicians use different ways of engaging and informing voters.  Voters have been exposed to many false promises and misinformation during elections to varying degrees in different countries, which were provided by human political representatives. It is part of the political reality, and members of opposing political parties are mostly quick to identify the misinformation or false promises by their opponents.  But what happens if it is not a human being, but an AI model that aim to influence voters?

During the 2016 presidential elections in the USA the data analytics company, Cambridge Analytica, which was hired by the Trump campaign, used an AI model to influence voters through microtargeted advertisements. The scandal, which was only exposed later, entailed a massive breach of privacy by Cambridge Analytica in view of the illegal use of personal data of millions of Facebook users, and voter manipulation through this AI model.  This obviously raised concerns about the undue influence on democratic processes.

The rapid growth of generative AI during the last year, enabled new opportunities for the misuse of AI by creating fake images, videos and text that could be used to promote election disinformation.  The high quality of many fake images, videos and audio clips created by generative AI and which appear to be authentic, could contribute to misleading voters to support specific candidates or political parties, or perhaps not to vote.  It is also possible to create synthetic text messages in multiple languages as part of a propaganda campaign based on false information.  Furthermore, the ease of combining various generative AI tools to create a disinformation campaign to influence an election, thus undermining democracy, is a serious worry.

In view of the possibility of large-scale impacts in various elections around the world, the misuse of generative AI is a global concern.  In February 2024 a group of 20 tech companies signed an agreement to cooperate to prevent deceptive AI which could be used to influence elections.  The signatories to this historic agreement include companies such as OpenAI and Microsoft that produce generative AI models as well as social media platforms such as Facebook, WhatsApp and TikTok.  While it is important that the technology companies are committed to prevent the misuse of their AI models during election campaigns, it is not clear how effective this agreement is.  The situation will have to be monitored closely.

In a research report, Countering Disinformation Effectively, published in January 2024, the Carnegie Endowment for Peace discussed the use of generative AI in the context of disinformation.  The report acknowledged the potential dangers of misusing generative AI in this context, but also offered another perspective.  It indicated that political deepfakes, such as videos created to misinform or mislead people, have so far had a limited impact.  The report argued that people’s willingness to believe false information often depends on factors such as a viewer’s state of mind, group identity or perceived authority, more so than the quality of the fake image.

Despite these concerns, the use of AI in elections has various benefits.  It could for example be used to analyse large amounts of data such as voter patterns, political speeches, news articles and reports of government performance.  It could provide valuable insights that political parties could use during their election campaigns.  Also, in the administration of elections, institutions managing elections could deploy appropriately designed AI based programs to indicate for example how to optimize resource allocation to voting stations throughout a country and to support voters abroad.

On a lighter note, some people might think it will be better to have an AI representative in parliament rather than a real politician, but this is far from reality since only natural living persons who meet all the requirements stipulated in a country’s constitution may be elected to a parliament.  

In view of the potential negative impact and harm that could be caused by AI during election campaigns and even on the election dates, it is necessary to consider appropriate countermeasures to strengthen democracy.  Such measures vary in nature and scope and include the following:

  • An agreement between technology companies to prevent the misuse of generative AI during elections, as mentioned earlier.
  • Changes in electoral legislation to stipulate how AI may be used legally in an election campaign.
  • An agreement among political parties and the institution overseeing the election about the use of AI.
  • Strengthening independent media which allows rigorous professional journalism to support democracy.
  • Using generative AI to combat disinformation and to create new tools to improve checking of facts and information published on social media.
  • Voter education should include updated information about the use of AI in election processes and how it could strengthen democracy.

South Africa's voters will go to the polls at the end of May 2024 to elect representatives to the National Assembly and the 9 provincial legislatures.  It is argued that this is the most important election since the birth of democracy in South Africa in 1994.  While the benefits of technology, in particular AI, during election processes are still to be harnessed fully, it will be detrimental to democracy if misuse of technology would result in manipulation of voters that influence the election outcome.   It is therefore important that attention should be given to these concerns by all stakeholders prior to the election.

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Please note that our blog posts are informal commentaries on developments in the law as at the time of publication and not legal advice. You should place no reliance on our blog posts; we look forward to discussing your particular matter with you.