Well-functioning democracies require a well-informed citizenry, an open social and political discourse and absence of opaque or deceitful influence. Western democracies have however always been prone to power asymmetries and to coercion and the curbing of these freedoms through oppression and propaganda. And while the powerful have always used tools and techniques to influence our opinions, the increasing use of the latest digital technologies in the 21st century, such as Artificial Intelligence (“AI”), has put these processes on steroids. Adoption of AI and datafication has raised concerns whether society is sliding into an Orwellian nightmare, where all of our actions are being scrutinized, controlled and manipulated at a scale that has never been possible before. So, what is it exactly that makes this time so different?
First, the combination of data and computing power has enabled the capture of an unprecedented amount of information about us. Ever larger parts of our lives happen online, where we constantly leave data trails. We have seen a surge in sensors being deployed in public spaces, at home, and on our bodies. As it stands today, over 13 billion devices are connected to the internet and recently the concept of the Internet-of-Bodies has emerged. The use of AI has made these troves of data a true playground for the categorization, sifting, sorting, and profiling of our entire lives, behavior, thoughts, ideas and beliefs. These insights in turn have created ample opportunities to target, nudge, manipulate and deceive us and have led to altered, even harmful beliefs, ideas, and behavior. All this happens ever more covertly at the abstract level of code, algorithms, models, and data. So-called ‘dark patterns’ lure us into accepting these practices and subliminal techniques manipulate us beyond our awareness. Beyond the Internet-of-Things and the Internet-of-Bodies, we are also on a trajectory towards the Internet-of-Minds, and we should seriously question whether we like where we are going.
AI has become a popular tool for surveillance, categorization, and manipulation for companies and politicians alike. The most widely discussed example of this is Cambridge Analytica, which exploited data of 87 million Facebook users to build profiles that could be utilized for political gain. But we need to look beyond Cambridge Analytica to understand the full exposure of our democracies and societies to AI.
The distortion of democracies, public discourse, social cohesion, and public trust by AI cannot be pinpointed to one event, scandal nor even a single phenomenon. AI-driven computational propaganda has distorted elections in Ukraine, Estonia, China, Iran, Mexico, the UK, and the US. It has been estimated that during the 2016 US Presidential elections almost one-fifth of the Twitter discussions came from bots. In 2017, two of the most widely followed black activist Twitter accounts, @Blacktivist and @WokeBlack, turned out to be fake accounts run by Russian troll farms. Facebook’s algorithm has incited violence against protesters in Myanmar, when it promoted junta misinformation, death threats, and the glorification of military violence. Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen has said that the company’s algorithm is “fanning ethnic violence” in Ethiopia.