Start main page content

AI and democracy: For better and for worse

- Deryn Graham

Today’s news and current affairs landscape, which underpins our democracy, requires both ethical content producers and discerning consumers.

The extraordinary capacity of AI to target and reach millions of people can definitely be used for good. One example is the campaign by Malaria No More using, with his consent, David Beckham who is seen to ‘speak’ nine languages to deliver the organisation’s anti malaria message. Instead of simply dubbing the international soccer star, AI synchronises the movement of his lips to each language. Leveraging Beckham’s credibility and reach, this innovative use of technology nevertheless set alarm bells ringing around the potential use of the same technology to subvert democracy by manipulating politicians’ speeches.

AI and digital technology | Curiosity 17: #Democracy ©

Faking it

When ethics go out of the window, and large numbers of the population are poorly educated, a gap opens for unscrupulous pedlars of fake news to create stories that can be misleading and even dangerous. Certainly, they can undermine the democratic process by deliberately targeting specific population groups with their messaging.

We don’t even need sophisticated equipment to produce AI-driven content. A cellphone and Photoshop can work, and images can easily be manipulated.

“A work of deep fake doesn’t even have to be of good quality for it to do immense damage,” says Richard Klein, Associate Professor and Deputy Head of the Wits School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics. “But even as we build tools to detect sophisticated deep fakes, so the technology to create images, videos and even voice excerpts becomes more advanced. It’s like the arms race out there, as creation and detection technology move to outdo each other.”

Trust courts, not tech

Professor Keith Breckenridge, Acting Co-Director at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research believes that while AI may make some computer functions easier, it also has the power to increase suspicion as we become mistrustful of computer-generated content. However, he also believes that in the South African context, we have bigger issues that threaten to destabilise our democracy than AI.

“In the cascading hierarchy of trust in South Africa, the courts still have the ultimate say, making them a vital part of the infrastructure that will determine the proper function and authenticity of a piece of AI or digitally created work. If we want to protect trust, when AI is used negligently or criminally, those responsible for deploying it need to be held liable,” he says.

“Tech companies cannot blame users’ lack of vigilance if, for example, their own systems are hacked or security is breached, nor can they blame consumers of fake news for being gullible,” he adds.

Whose news ‘just for you’?

The proliferation of online news sites and social media platforms has resulted in volumes of authentic, reliable news as well as fake news, mis- and disinformation, and deep fake visual imagery. We are all required to sift through pages and pages of information to extract news, form our opinions and later, to exercise our democratic rights and elect our public servants. However, if social media, using AI algorithms, individualises our newsfeed according to our own biases, AI becomes divisive, restricting our access to a broader range of sources.

“Algorithms skew the delivery of information along what individuals may have expressed an interest in at any given moment, but which doesn’t necessarily represent what their general interests are,” says Klein, “and this can further entrench a single idea and close off access to other viewpoints.”

Big Tech threat

Benjamin Rosman, Professor in the Wits School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, and Head of the Robotics, Autonomous Intelligence and Learning Laboratory, believes that while philosophically we can all agree that AI and other technologies have democratised access to information and content creation, practically it is a potentially dangerous tool. Although its ability to further someone’s education outside of the formal system, and to enable personal growth and development is a form of democracy, it can also mislead and misinform.

“The barriers to entry for the many uses of AI are low, but all the funding and support is directed to the tech giants. The set up of the information ecosystem is inherently dangerous,” says Rosman.

Klein concurs: “The big tech companies have a disproportionate amount of power in this space, and regulators are way behind and need to catch up very quickly.”

AI, ethics, and humans

Applying AI in a purely administrative and technical function can assist democracy and the electoral process by managing voter rolls, spotting anomalies and duplications, and synthesising massive amounts of data pre and post the ballot. In addition, AI is helpful in multilingual societies such as South Africa and offers wider opportunities for political engagement. It can translate manifestos, and electoral proceedings, for example, into all official languages or even into a format that matches individual cognitive styles, including pictorial representations of information.

However, in the wrong hands it can be used to influence human behaviour, including decision-making at the ballot box and skewing an electoral outcome in one direction over another. Ultimately AI can undermine independent thought and everything for which democracies stand.

In a recent finding published in the Paris Charter on AI & Journalism, it was determined that ‘ethics must guide’ the use and application of AI. Sadly, in the hands of humans who must be the final arbiters, we cannot be sure that this will always be the case and that our democratic and human rights will always be protected and upheld.


How cryptocurrency democratises financial activity

If freedom of choice is a key element of democracy, then cryptocurrencies are democratising the financial landscape.

So says Associate Professor in the Wits Margo Steele School of Accountancy, Asheer Jaywant Ram, for whom the single most important impact of cryptocurrencies (also called crypto assets) has been to emancipate users from the influence and dominance of traditional banks.

“Crypto is democratising the management and movement of money,” he says. 

Despite crypto being banned in several countries across the African continent and in China, South Africa has embraced it, taking what steps it can to protect investors by regulating and legislating its use.

According to the website of The Intergovernmental Fintech Working Group, a collective of financial sector regulators, they are working to ‘demystify the regulatory landscape, provide a safe space for experimentation and actively advance innovation’ which Ram applauds. “South Africa is taking the power to the people,” he says.

Although scepticism about the wild fluctuations in the value of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin has prevented more consumers from adopting crypto, governments’ reservations revolve more around their inability to track the movement of crypto transactions, which remain anonymous on the blockchain. This opens crypto up to potential misuse for money laundering, tax evasion and other less than savoury or legal financial activity.

But, using cryptocurrencies also frees people, for example in crisis zones, to continue to run businesses, to buy, sell and invest, where their economies and currencies are unstable and even under siege.

Greater uptake of crypto is inevitable, Ram believes. “Some studies have shown that South Africa ranks fifth in the world in terms of crypto ownership and 84% of holders of the different crypto currencies are aged between 18 and 44,” he says.

While more users experiment with existing crypto currencies and the Financial Sector Conduct Authority is likely to grant more crypto trading licences in the future, some central banks are looking at creating digital and possibly even eventually cryptocurrencies of their own. However, these will remain under the control of the central banking authority, in South Africa’s case the Reserve Bank – which is the converse of what crypto supporters advocate.

However, Ram says, “South Africa has taken steps in the right direction regarding the use and trading of crypto, and this is democratising our financial sector. We already have proof of concept; retailers like Pick ‘n Pay have even piloted accepting payment in crypto, and I believe it has a future utility in this country.” 

“With crypto, users have the choice not to have to engage with traditional financial infrastructures. If freedom of choice is a key element of democracy, then cryptocurrencies are democratising the financial landscape,” asserts Ram.

  •  Deryn Graham is a freelance writer.
  • This article first appeared in Curiosity, a research magazine produced byWits Communications and the Research Office
  • Read more in the 17th issue, themed: #Democracy, we turn to our academics and professional staff for their research, perspectives and commentary on both the progress and shortcomings in our democracy, and democracies elsewhere.