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US elections 2024: Which technologies could influence them

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US elections 2024: Which technologies could influence them

US elections 2024: Which technologies could influence them

The Iowa caucuses on January 15th marked the official start of the 2024 American presidential election. But important democratic decisions are coming up around the world this year: More than 40 national elections will take place, making 2024 one of the most important election years in history could do. Technology has always played a role in elections – and also in political discourse. In addition, many parties and candidates have been using big data methods for several years to learn more about voters and address them more specifically. However, there are enormous changes in this area – and one reason is the increasing use of artificial intelligence. The interface between technology, business, information technology and media is changing incredibly quickly. Three technology trends particularly stand out, which MIT Technology Review analyzed below.

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, generative artificial intelligence takes the top spot on our list. There is no doubt that AI that generates texts or images will cause significantly more misinformation – even of a deliberate nature – in the political sphere. It is still unclear how this will manifest itself in practice. The civil rights organization Freedom House recently demonstrated the possibilities using the example of Venezuela. There, state media “spread pro-government messages, for example, through AI-generated videos from news anchors from a non-existent international English-language broadcaster.” They were produced using the Synthesia software, which creates customized deepfakes. AI-manipulated videos and images of politicians have also made the rounds on social media in the United States.

These include incidents such as a video that was manipulated to show current President Joe Biden making transphobic comments or discouraging participation in elections. Or a photo of former President Donald Trump hugging COVID-19 coordinator Anthony Fauci, who is unpopular among conservatives. It’s easy to imagine how such fakes could change a voter’s decision to vote or discourage people from voting at all. The recent presidential elections in Argentina are also an example.

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Generative AI will not only spread disinformation during election campaigns; the technology could also be used in unexpected ways. These include extremely realistic robocalls, i.e. automated calls from voters, as used by many candidates in the USA. Last month, Shamaine Daniels, a Democratic congressional candidate from Pennsylvania, announced that her campaign would use the campaign AI system “Ashley” to reach more voters “in person.” A lobbying group (super PAC) has meanwhile announced that it wants to use an AI chatbot (“Dean.Bot”) to give advantages to the Democratic Biden challenger Dean Phillips.

So-called micro-influencers, i.e. people with a significant but not extremely large following on social media, could play an important role in the election campaign in the future. The use of influencers in political communication is not new in itself. Michael Bloomberg’s short-lived presidential campaign toyed with getting major influencers to post memes on his behalf. The city of Minneapolis planned to pay local influencers to promote more peaceful demonstrations. And the US government finally tried to use influencers to encourage more people to get a COVID-19 vaccination.

Researchers believe the 2024 US presidential election will be the first of its kind to feature large-scale use of micro-influencers who are not typically involved in politics. These are people who have built up a small, specific audience that interacts strongly with their content, often consisting of a specific demographic group. That seems to be working: In Wisconsin, for example, such a micro-influencer campaign may have contributed to record turnout in last year’s state Supreme Court elections. This strategy allows campaigns to reach a specific group of people through an ambassador they already trust. And such micro-influencers not only post for money (or even without), but also help campaigns better understand their audience and platforms.

However, this new micro-influencer strategy appears to be in a legal gray area – at least in the USA. There are currently no clear rules governing how such individuals must disclose paid contributions and indirect advertising for political candidates and causes. What happens, for example, if an influencer reports about taking part in a campaign event, but the post itself is not sponsored? The US election supervisory authority, the Federal Election Commission, has therefore drawn up guidelines, but they are not yet binding. The trend is also reaching other countries, for example in Europe or India, which was recently reported in Wired magazine.

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The suppression of free expression by political actors is of course not new, but it is increasing. It is also becoming increasingly more targeted and is supplemented by technical surveillance, the targeted targeting of people on the Internet and government control of entire online domains. Freedom House’s latest report on the state of internet freedom shows that generative AI is already supporting censorship and authoritarian governments are expanding their control over internet infrastructure. Complete grid shutdowns are also on the rise.

As the Financial Times recently reported, the current Turkish government is tightening internet censorship ahead of the March elections by ordering internet providers to restrict access to VPNs. More broadly, digital censorship is becoming a crucial issue for human rights and a central weapon in the wars of the future. Just think of the extreme measures taken in Iran during the protests of 2022 or the government’s partial shutdown of the internet in Ethiopia.

So we should all keep a close eye on the tech space this year – it could dictate democracy more than we’d like.

(jl)

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