Author: Emmanuel Ernest Chenge.
In today’s fast-paced digital world, the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology is driving significant changes globally. This shift is entrusting crucial decision-making to advanced AI systems. As a sociologist and digital facilitator, I embarked on a journey to understand AI’s role in ethics and society, enrolling in the “Artificial Intelligence: Ethics and Societal Challenges” course on Coursera offered by Lund University. In this article, I will share my transformative learning experience, shedding light on the insights I have gained and the profound impact of this course on my understanding of AI ethics. Let us begin by exploring AI in relation to democracy. Future articles will be exploring other facets of AI.
AI and Democracy: Unpacking the Implications
In this course module, I delved into the complex relationship between AI and democracy. One pivotal concept that caught my attention is the formation of information clusters, commonly referred to as echo chambers or filter bubbles, all thanks to AI algorithms. An echo chamber is a situation where an online user is predominantly exposed to information and viewpoints aligning with their existing preferences and beliefs. Algorithmic filter bubbles or echo chambers can create an environment where it becomes challenging to consider alternative perspectives. This content-driven bias is detrimental to healthy democratic discourse, as it stifles the opportunity to hear different points of view.
I also came to realize the vital importance of allowing all participants in democratic discussions to express and hold their views. Actively listening to others, genuinely seeking to understand their perspectives, and being open to changing our own minds when presented with compelling ideas are crucial aspects of fostering healthy democratic processes. Similarly, if we present compelling arguments, others should be willing to reconsider their positions.
Furthermore, I comprehended that while social media plays a significant role in connecting people and facilitating communication, it can also have adverse effects on democracy. Biased information promoted on social media platforms can distort democratic processes and be exploited by malicious actors to monitor and harass civil and social movements. Authoritarian regimes, for instance, can use AI tools to surveil online communications of movement leaders and identify social media influencers to disseminate their information and disinformation. We are all aware of the capabilities of powerful tools like the Pegasus malware, which has been alleged to proficiently surveil individuals, gathering extensive data on their daily communications.
The emergence of deep fakes also raises serious concerns for democratic systems, as they can be used to manipulate public opinion. Deep fakes involve digitally altering audio, photos, or videos of a person to make them appear to be someone else, often used maliciously or to spread false information.
Furthermore, ongoing discussions explore how AI can be harnessed to enhance democracy. Liquid democracy, for example, envisions the possibility of voting directly on issues through representative parties aided by AI. Similarly, algorithms that recommend content based on preferences and clicks can assist people in selecting candidates aligned with their preferences.
In the 2017 article “Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?” authored by Dirk et al., concerns are raised about the pursuit of big data in relation to democratic systems. They express apprehensions regarding the automation of data and the superintelligence of machines. However, the authors also believe in the potential for a better digital society and recommend designing technology that aligns with democratic principles.
In the 2021 article “AI and you: how confusion about the technology that runs our world threatens democracy” by John Zerilli, the author illustrates the advancements in AI, particularly in machine learning, where existing information is used to generate new data. The case of Cambridge Analytica is referenced, highlighting allegations of digital rights infringement.
AI and Democracy in Tanzania: The Social Media Landscape briefly
AI technology in Tanzania has been making its way into various sectors, including healthcare, agriculture, and more. In democratic processes, AI technology is primarily used on social media platforms. These platforms employ AI algorithms for various operations, such as data collection, providing search results, offering political content based on user preferences, user profiling, overall content recommendation, and moderation. According to the 2022 National Census, Tanzania’s population stands at 61.9 million. Additionally, according to the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority (TCRA) September 2023 report, there were 23.8 million internet subscriptions in 2018, which has since increased to 34.5 million in September 2023. A significant portion of these internet subscribers engage with social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram. According to recent data from the TCRA as of September 2022, Facebook had the highest number of subscribers. The TCRA’s sector report also indicated that 3.4 million IP addresses access the Facebook platform daily, and this number continues to grow.
As more Tanzanians continue to access social media platforms, it becomes essential to raise awareness. Most social media platforms employ AI algorithms to interact with users. It is important for citizens to understand that individuals and institutions on social media strive to present their best image, influencing the content they share. Therefore, users should exercise caution and fact-check the information they encounter. There is also a growing challenge where people rely solely on social media for news, such as the Millard Ayo blog and its affiliated social media pages. It is advisable to have a tendency in place to access other unbiased sources of information.
Sociological Theory on Impression Management
Symbolic interactionism, a sociological theory, explains how individuals create and interpret symbols, signs, and meaning through social interactions. This theory suggests that people tend to engage in what the sociological theorist Erving Goffman (1922 – 1982) called “Impression Management,” which means individuals make a deliberate effort to shape the way others perceive them. This includes presenting their best image, emphasizing their positive side while downplaying negative attributes. This concept also applies to institutions.
Erving Goffman expanded his concept further by presenting the idea of “front stage and back stage behaviors.” In the front stage, individuals act in ways that conform to societal norms and expectations, presenting their best image. In contrast, the backstage represents more private, unguarded behavior where individuals can be themselves without the need to portray a specific image.
The concept of impression management by Erving Goffman has now evolved into what we can refer to as “Digital Impression Management.” So, when you see online content, be aware that it has been carefully crafted with a specific goal in mind. This emphasizes the importance of fact checking and seeking a balanced narrative, especially in democratic processes.
Furthermore, this idea extends beyond democratic procedures to our everyday interactions. For example, you can meet a person online and immediately dive headfirst into a committed intimate relationship without realizing that he or she has portrayed their best image while ignoring their negative personality. When you eventually discover the truth, it can deeply disappoint and hurt your emotions. Here too, the principle of fact-checking and seeking authenticity remains crucial.
Regarding social media platforms, they should take on the role of content moderation rather than providing information that influences their users’ decision-making. For instance, if a person is a follower of a political party or any other affiliations, when they search for content, they should find the content they seek, allowing users the freedom to access the content they want rather than having social media influence content based on their preferences.
However, this approach of giving users only the content they seek may risk creating echo chambers where users are only exposed to content they already agree with, potentially limiting their exposure to different perspectives from other political parties or viewpoints.
I would like to emphasize the importance of fostering positive communication on social media platforms. Let us refrain from disseminating inaccurate or deceptive content, fact-check, and, most importantly, prioritize peace. We should keep in mind that AI algorithms for data processing could utilize the information we contribute to the internet, in this context, social media. Therefore, let us ensure that we provide the internet with accurate and constructive data to benefit us when it is needed.
From my perspective, integrating AI systems into democratic procedures is not a simple task but is certainly feasible. Concerns about the delegation of decision-making through AI systems raise questions about ensuring sound choices are made on behalf of others. Nevertheless, it is an area ripe for research and exploration.
What are your thoughts on the incorporation of AI systems into democratic procedures? I eagerly await your perspective on this matter.