The days of grassroots campaigning and political buttons are long gone. Candidates have found a new way of running, a new manager. Algorithms and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are quickly becoming the standard when it comes to the campaign trail. These predictive algorithms could be deciding the votes of millions using the information of potential voters.

Politicians use AI to manipulate voters through targeted ads. Slava Polonski, PhD, explains how, “Using big data and machine learning, voters received different messages based on predictions about their susceptibility to different arguments.” Instead of going door to door, using the same message for each person, politicians use AI to create specific knocks they know people will answer to. This all takes place from a website or email.

People tagged conservative receive ads that reference family values and maintaining tradition. Voters more susceptible to conspiracy theories were shown ads based on fear, and they all could come from the same candidate. Politicians can make themselves a one size fits all through specialized ads.

AI’s campaign capabilities don’t stop at ads. After Hillary Clinton’s defeat in 2016, the Washington Post revealed that her campaign was centered around a machine learning tool called ‘Ada.’ More specifically, “the algorithm was said to play a role in virtually every strategic decision Clinton aides made, including where and when to deploy the candidate and her battalion of surrogates and where to air television ads” (Berkowitz). After Clinton’s loss, questions arose surrounding the effectiveness of using AI in this new way. In 2020, both Biden and Trump stuck to AI primarily for advertising purposes.

This means the utilization of bots and targeted swarms of misinformation to gain votes. Candidates are leading “ armies of bots to swarm social media to hide dissent” (Berkowitz). A post election analysis by the Atlantic found that around 20% of all tweets in the 2016 election were made by bots, as were over 30% surrounding the UK’s Brexit vote. Individual votes are susceptible to influence by social media accounts without a human being behind them. All over the globe, AI with an agenda can tip the scales of an election.

The use of social media campaigns with large-scale political propaganda is intertwined within elections and ultimately raises questions about our democracy. Users are manipulated to receive different messages based on predictions about their susceptibility to different arguments for different politicians. “Every voter could receive a tailored message that emphasised a different side of the argument…The key was just finding the right emotional triggers for each person to drive them to action” (Polonski).

The use of AI in elections raises much larger questions about the stability of the political system we live in. Our democracy rests upon the principle of free and fair elections, where people can vote without intimidation or manipulation. AI undermines this principle, manipulating voters, or even promoting “extremist narratives” (Polonski).

However, the use of AI can also enhance election campaigns in ethical ways. Polonski says, “we can program political bots to step in when people share articles that contain known misinformation [and] we can deploy micro-targeting campaigns that help to educate voters on a variety of political issues and enable them to make up their own minds”.

The ongoing use of social media readily informs citizens about elections, their representatives, and the issues occurring around them. Using AI in elections is critical as Polonski says, “…we can use AI to listen more carefully to what people have to say and make sure their voices are being clearly heard by their elected representatives”.

So while AI in elections raises many concerns regarding the future of campaigning and democracy, it has the potential to help constituents without manipulation when employed in the right setting.

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