Governance - Politics

Technology and AI : A foe or friend of Democracy?

With the emergence of AI and technology and its need to be regulated, authorities are posed with the task of striking a balance between freedom of speech, which is too often denied, and democracy, which is mostly threatened with misinformation, malinformation, and disinformation. 

In authoritarian and competitive authoritarian regimes where constitutions are just papers without meaning and elections are done as a ritual, technology and AI have posed a threat to the grip of power. With the ability of AI to share volumes of information at a high speed, make it viral, and, to some extent, even when the information is not authentic, through pictorial presentation, the information might seem authentic and distort facts. These are the 4 Vs of AI (volume, velocity, virality, and verisimilitude). These tools have been vital to the political divide worldwide. 

In Zimbabwe, during the launch of the Register, Elect, and Protect (REAP) campaign, the use of AI through WhatsApp chatbots engaged more than 30, 000 people in less than 24 hours after the launch, with background information showing that more than half of the people interacted with the options of accessing voter registration centers.  This was a progressive move towards covering the gap in information access that is deliberately caused by the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission in urban areas where the ruling party does not perform well. 

After the delimitation, in fact, after Gerrymandering before the 2023 elections, particularly in the strongholds of the opposition, ZEC changed polling stations of folks without any prior communication. In the last days of the elections, complaints started coming from the people, some mentioning the inefficiency of the ZEC system in checking polling stations. A group led by Freeman Chari created a WhatsApp chatbot that made use of the voter’s role to easily provide polling stations by using their surname and ID number. 

In October 2015, during the #FEESMUSTFALL student’s campaign, technology through social media gave attention to the cause, mobilising support and concern from students worldwide. Also, it was used for online polls to hear the general sentiment of students around the FEES MUST FALL campaign. During the Arab Spring, research from the Project on Information Technology and Political Islam concluded that social media played a vital role in the mobilisation of people to participate in the revolution that ousted Ben Ali from Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak from Egypt. 

However, where there is a means to access massive resources, technology can be used to hold onto power, undermining the will and rights of the people. In these instances, technology presents itself as a threat to democracy in authoritarian regimes and anti-democratic governments. With the 4 Vs of AI aforementioned, the government can use misinformation, malinformation, and disinformation to push narratives, scapegoating their misgovernance and misjudgments. For instance, Zimbabwe on sanctions rhetoric, Russia in the Ukraine war, Israel on Palestine, and Hamas through sponsorships, micro-targeting, and the use of big networks push propaganda in a quest to shape public opinion. China’s great surveillance programme on its citizens thwarts democratic freedoms. In the Middle East, social media surveillance leads to the persecution of activists. In Iran, China, and Russia, AI is used for censorship, removing content that is deemed politically incorrect. 

The use of predictive policing and correctional offender management profiling for alternative solutions (COMPAS) in countries like the US and offender assessment systems (OASys) in the UK has been criticised by many as racist and justifies the monitoring and suppression of minorities. In some instances, the data points fed into the predictive algorithms are biased. The use of personal data, location data, and historical data that is sometimes biassed produces a biassed system towards minority groups. Will Douglas Heaven wrote, “Replacing a prejudiced human cop or judge with algorithms that merely conceal those same prejudices is not the answer.”. 

Comrades, generations that came before, invented and introduced gunpowder and guns to fight wars, but thanks to our generation, we brought technology and AI, which, if used, can be able to shape public opinion, raise political consciousness, enhance political conscience, foster political participation, and prosecute revolutions.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *