There’s also a positive side of GenAI that can strengthen democracy

Its advanced data analysis capabilities can monitor election-related data in real-time, identifying any irregularities suggesting fraudulent activity.
Its advanced data analysis capabilities can monitor election-related data in real-time, identifying any irregularities suggesting fraudulent activity.

Summary

  • Ethical worries have surrounded the use of AI in elections but its creative deployment in Pakistani polls by Imran Khan to canvass votes while in jail shows it can be put to democratic ends too.

The tech narrative in the last two years has been dominated by artificial intelligence (AI) and the excitement and disruption generated by it. However, the narrative started to sour a little in the latter half of 2023, as ethical issues got thrown up—like copyright, bias, privacy and deepfakes. Now, with elections looming across most of the democratic world, 2024 promises to be the year when AI will experience its first major ethical test—whether it helps democracy or subverts it. Major democracies like India, the US, UK, Indonesia and others go for pivotal elections this year. While deepfakes existed before GenAI, products like Sora and Stable Diffusion have democratized their production, making them easier, faster and cheaper to make at scale. We are also at peak social media, with WhatsApp, TikTok and the like making their global distribution a piece of cake. Bangladesh and Slovakia went to polls earlier this year, and deepfakes came to the party. A Bangladeshi opposition leader was shown to be ambivalent about his support for Palestinians, a disastrous position to take in the country. In Slovakian elections, also earlier this year, a major contender reportedly talked about rigging the elections and, even more alarmingly, raising the price of beer, which reportedly contributed to his defeat. A fake voice of President Joe Biden urged people not to vote in the US primaries. With memories of the 2016 Cambridge Analytica debacle still fresh, these have set off alarm bells as the big elections near.

This is where I take a contrarian stance. Look at Pakistan, which went to polls recently with a former prime minister in jail, his party symbols taken away and candidates threatened and imprisoned. While eventually other parties were declared to have won, most reports claim that Imran Khan’s party won convincingly despite heavy rigging and manipulation. Khan turned the narrative of AI subverting democracy on its head by leveraging GenAI to canvass across the country while behind bars. GenAI was used to create footage of his urging voters to come out and vote for his party, and this was widely shared on YouTube and other online channels. People heeded his call and came out in record numbers, handing astonishing victories to his party candidates. Without taking sides here, Pakistan showed how AI could be used in a role different from that of a democracy-destroyer.

I am not denying the destructive power of deepfakes, and I fear their use in Indian and other elections to inflame discourse and shape narratives. However, there is a lot of good that AI can also do to improve elections, a core pillar of democracy. The Pakistan example is one creative way. AI can also be used to enhance transparency, inclusivity and efficiency in elections. Its advanced data analysis capabilities can monitor election-related data in real-time, identifying any irregularities suggesting fraudulent activity. AI algorithms can detect patterns of irregularities in voter registrations or ballot submissions. AI can also improve the security of electronic voting systems. Additionally, threat-detection algorithms can help identify potential cyber threats.

Generative AI can help upgrade voter education and awareness by generating hyper-personalized content on candidates and their manifestoes, focused on local issues, in people’s local dialects. This personalized approach could enhance political awareness and spur informed voting, especially among marginalized groups. GenAI can help do this at scale and much lower cost with higher efficiency, thus empowering even less-moneyed candidates.

AI-run systems can also enhance accessibility for voters with disabilities. AI-powered voice recognition systems, for instance, could assist visually impaired voters in casting votes. AI can parse the fire-hose of information on social media to gauge public opinion across demographic groups, ensuring that all sections of society are represented in the political conversation. Even something as mundane as the logistics of electioneering can be optimised and costs saved, something very important for large countries like India. AI can help make voter registration and verification more efficient, eliminating long queues by calling up the data needed to verify eligibility well in time.

AI is a dual-use technology, with huge benefits accompanied by immense destructive power. As we try and contain its adverse fallout on elections through deepfakes, we should also look at how it could improve our fragile democracies. Even if imperfectly, Imran Khan’s party succeeded in pointing this potential out to the world.

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