by Bonolo Makgale 

The year 2024 is an extraordinary year for elections in all its hazardous glory as it sets the record for the greatest number of people living in countries that are holding elections. More voters than ever in history will be heading to the polls in at least 64 countries representing a combined population of about 49% globally. Many of these votes will test the limits of democracy, while others will be exercises in rubber-stamping the results of which, for many, will prove consequential for years to come. Yet, these elections are taking place against the backdrop of a relentless global evolution of digital technology which has ushered in a new era of unprecedented challenges in the democratic and political space . In an era of data manipulation and the growing influence of artificial intelligence, democracy stands at a critical crossroads. 

The emergence of AI technology presents a twofold prospect: on the one hand, it offers unprecedented opportunities to strengthen democratic processes; on the other, it poses unprecedented risks to their integrity. Nowhere is this dilemma more pronounced than in the realm of elections, especially in a continent like Africa where the spectre of electoral fraud casts a long shadow. As we navigate the complex interplay between AI and the electoral landscape, the urgency of the moment becomes increasingly clear. The very essence of democracy hangs precariously in the balance between empowerment and exploitation, progress and regression. 

Against this backdrop, the recent AI and elections conference convened by Yiaga Africa https://yiaga.org/ and regional partners in Nairobi, Kenya serves as an important reminder of the need to confront these complexities head-on. This piece highlights discussions from a session that focused on protecting the right to vote when electoral management bodies use AI in elections, how AI-driven messaging can undermine voting rights and influence voter behaviour in elections, and a way forward that prioritises the protection of democratic values amidst the transformative potential of AI.

Democracy in the Information Age

The proliferation of fake news, misinformation and algorithm-driven disinformation, facilitated by advances in artificial intelligence, has distorted the boundaries between authenticity and misinformation, posing formidable challenges in the political sphere. Its pervasiveness has created inherent risks to voters' rights, potentially undermining the basic principles of democracy, and has made the task of distinguishing truth from falsehood much more difficult. In particular, when voters are bombarded with misleading information and manipulated narratives, their ability to make informed decisions is compromised, undermining the integrity of the electoral process. It is therefore important that now more than ever, we recognise that the right to vote goes beyond the mere act of casting a ballot. Rather, it should encompass a range of enabling factors that facilitate the exercise of this fundamental civil and political right. The right to vote cannot be exercised in isolation.  These factors include the right to know and access to information, especially credible information. Democracy thrives on the principle that citizens have access to trustworthy information that enables them to participate meaningfully in governance affairs. 

While acknowledging the negative impact of AI on the right to vote, we can also leverage its potential for positive impact by providing opportunities to increase civic engagement. For example, we can consider the case of Thoko the Bot from a think tank organisation in South Africa - Rivonia Circle, an AI-powered tool designed to help find valuable voter resources and election information. This platform provides voters with comprehensive information about their rights, voting procedures and the political landscape, empowering them to make informed decisions at the ballot box. Yiaga Africa’s My Election Buddy, a voter education Chatbot deployed during Nigeria’s 2023 elections assisted voters locate newly assigned polling stations on election day. By using an AI bot like Thoko or My Election Buddy to overcome barriers of access and comprehension, electoral authorities can encourage greater civic participation and democratic engagement among diverse populations. Similar to Thoko and My Election Buddy, Vote Compass, another South African AI platform matches voters with candidates that align with their views, fostering a more engaged and informed electorate. Additionally, in Ghana, AI-driven initiatives are deployed to sift through data, identify voter patterns, and enhance engagement strategies, contributing to more informed and active electoral participation. 

Digital inclusion, AI and the future of elections in Africa

As we move the discussion to digital democracy, it's imperative that we prioritise civil and political rights in the process of digital transformation. The deployment of AI in elections must prioritise the principle of inclusivity. While technological advancements hold the promise of enhancing electoral accessibility, there is a danger that certain marginalised groups may be disenfranchised in the process. This is particularly because in Africa, the digital landscape presents a stark picture of inequality. This divide encompasses various factors such as limited access to reliable internet connectivity, disparities in access to affordable digital devices, and discrepancies in digital literacy levels across different socioeconomic statuses and geographic regions.  For instance, in the case of South Africa, it was reported that there were 45.34 million active internet users in January 2024. It was also reported that approximately 26 million internet users in the country used social media, representing approximately 42.8 percent of the total population. This means that 58.2 percent of the total population does not have access to the Internet or social media platforms.  The case of South Africa is not an exception but rather underlines the broader significance of digital inequality in a continent already characterised by profound economic disparities. This brings the question of who is being left behind, who has access to information and can we confidently say that the people’s democracy, in particular, digital democracy is being protected when a significant population lacks access and resources to digital platforms. 

As such, there is a need for multifaceted interventions to bridge the access gap, underscoring a pressing need for initiatives such as expanding broadband infrastructure and implementing comprehensive digital literacy programs. These programs should not only teach basic internet navigation skills but should develop the ability to assess the credibility of online information. Voter education initiatives must incorporate digital literacy and address how AI can be used to create convincing yet false content, such as deep fakes and misinformation. Additionally, there is a need to develop user-friendly interfaces, provide multilingual support, and incorporate accessibility features that will accommodate the diverse needs and preferences of the voters.

In his concluding remarks, Mr. Samson Itodo, the Executive Director of Yiaga Africa, emphasised that AI in elections is an evolving conversation. Therefore, the African election ecosystem cannot afford to play catchup and must invest in knowledge production, socialisation of AI and promotion of awareness of AI. So, as we navigate this intricate landscape, it's essential to prioritise collaborative efforts among stakeholders to safeguard elections and uphold the principles of democracy.

Consequently, it is incumbent upon policymakers and electoral management bodies to prioritise civil and political rights at the heart of digital transformation by proactively addressing the dual potential of AI in both undermining and enhancing democracy.


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