2024 4DPRU Conference – Artificial Intelligence, Elections, and the Future of Democracy: Global Experiences and Directions

As half the world population goes to the ballot box this year, the global democratization process faces challenges, particularly in Africa, where electoral malpractices often lead to violence during elections. Building on this, a two-day international conference was organized on the 26th and 27th of June by the University of Johannesburg’s 4IR and Digital Policy Research Unit (4DPRU) in collaboration with the Centre for Communication and Leadership at the University of Southern California (USC) and the African Centre for the Study of the United States (ACSUS) Wits University and hosted by the UJ Library. The aim of the conference was to explore how AI can enhance democratic processes, focusing on its potential in electoral campaigns and ensuring free and fair elections.

The conference, titled Artificial Intelligence, Elections and the Future of Democracy and Leadership: Global Experiences and Directions, addresses the need for AI to positively transform political practices, particularly in Africa where social media’s impact on democratization has been limited. The event comprises eight panels covering topics such as including the impact of AI on voting processes, good governance, surveillance, media, and the role of big tech.

The conference was welcomed by Prof Bhaso Ndzendze, Vice-Dean in the Faculty of Humanities and Head of the 4DPRU. In his remarks he noted that the conference’s proceedings “[were] exemplary of the 4DPRU’s founding mandate. With the university’s emphasis on societal impact, this event shines a spotlight on sustainable development goal number 16, which calls for peace, justice and strong institutions.” The lead organiser of the conference was Dr Anslem Adunimay, a researcher within the 4DPRU. USC academic Adam Powell III and Wits ACSUS director Bob Wekesa gave insightful keynotes focusing on cybersecurity, election integrity, and the role of media in communicating the ever-shifting political landscape in the wake of AI.

The conference brought together a line-up of global scholars, many of whom are leaders in their fields. Some of the institutions represented include National University of Science and Technology, Wits University, UNISA, the University of Cape Town, Walter Sisulu University, University of Tilburg, Atiba University, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, University of Strathclyde, Babes-Bolyai University, London School of Economics, the University of Johannsburg, The Brookings Institution, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, University of Liverpool. The conference also included speakers from intergovernmental institutions AU-NEPAD and the European Commission and civic organisation Society for Peace and Community Builders.

A key argument that emerged during the robust question and answer sessions was that inasmuch AI’s involvement in democratic and governance processes cannot be downplayed, it is far from being the panacea that can ensure good governance and free and fair elections. This is because it can be manipulated by those who have control over it. Moreover, the sudden increase in the usage of Generative AI technology to create content has surfaced, threatening democratic discourse and electoral integrity. Addressing this dilemma calls for a diverse solution.

Overall, the events were informed broadly by two major themes state surveillance in the era of AI and the role of big technological companies in shaping the democratic and political discussion. Regarding state surveillance and AI, the overarching argument was that AI has augmented the level of state surveillance.

One of the questions that was asked was, of what essence was state surveillance if it doesn’t enhance internal security considering the high levels of insecurity that is witnessed in states such as South Africa?

What also transpired in the discussion was that the economic dominance of major tech companies is profoundly transforming society and thus raising fundamental questions, both longstanding and new, at the crossroads of information systems and political philosophy. Traditionally, big tech companies functioned as economic entities, but now they are emerging as influential political actors, significantly threatening citizens’ fundamental rights through their operations. Hence, as they wield their political power, the question that arises is the complexities of regulating that power.

In her closing remarks, the chairperson of the conference Ndzalama Mathebula, also a researcher in the 4DPRU, highlighted the multiple perspectives shared in the two days and noted the importance of translating the rigorous academic work into policy initiatives to ensure that democracy is enhanced, and that technology is sustainably harnessed.

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