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World’s Democracies Threatened by Disinformation Generated by Artificial Intelligence

Credit: UN Photo/Loey Felipe
On March 21, the 193-member UN General Assembly adopted a landmark resolution—the first ever -- on the promotion of “safe, secure and trustworthy” artificial intelligence (AI) systems that will also benefit “sustainable development for all”. Adopting a United States-led draft resolution, without a vote, the Assembly also highlighted the respect, protection and promotion of human rights in the design, development, deployment and the use of AI. The text was “co-sponsored” or backed by more than 120 other Member States

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 25 2024 (IPS) - Speaking at the third Summit for Democracy in South Korea last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that a malicious “flood” of disinformation is threatening the world’s democracies—triggered in part by the rise of artificial intelligence (AI).

But AI is also a critical arena in which democracy is being challenged. “So, while we seek to harness the power of AI and other digital technologies for good, some governments are abusing those same technologies to do just the opposite,” he said.

They’re using AI tools, like facial recognition and bots, to surveil their own citizens, harass journalists, human rights defenders, and political dissidents. They are also spreading mis- and disinformation that undermines free and fair elections, or sets one segment of our societies against another, Blinken said.

A Washington Post article in January titled ‘AI is destabilizing ‘the concept of truth itself’ focuses on the upcoming US Congressional and presidential elections while pointing out that experts in artificial intelligence have long warned that AI-generated content could muddy the waters of perceived reality.

“Weeks into a pivotal election year, AI confusion is on the rise.”

“Politicians around the globe have been swatting away potentially damning pieces of evidence — grainy video footage of hotel trysts, voice recordings criticizing political opponents — by dismissing them as AI-generated fakes. At the same time, AI deepfakes are being used to spread misinformation.”

In the US last month, the New Hampshire Justice Department said it was investigating robocalls featuring what appeared to be an AI-generated voice that sounded like President Biden telling voters to skip the Tuesday primary — the first notable use of AI for voter suppression this campaign cycle.

Mark Coeckelbergh, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Vienna and author of ‘Why AI Undermines Democracy And What To Do About It’ (Polity Press, 2024), told IPS: “As we will see in the many elections that will be held this year all over the world, AI in combination with social media plays an increasing role in manipulation of elections and spreading misinformation”.

“This is an imminent issue that needs to be addressed by policy makers. But as I show in my new book Why AI undermines democracy and what to do about it–9781509560929 democracy is not only about elections.”

Democracy, he argued, is also undermined in its foundational principles due to, for example, bias and surveillance, which threatens basic democratic principles of justice and freedom.

In addition, he said, a knowledge basis is needed for democracy, but AI can lead to polarization and epistemic bubbles, in other words to a climate in which people are not interested in different opinions and where others are seen as enemies.

In such a climate, he pointed out, deliberative and communicative ideals of democracy cannot flourish, but are on the contrary undermined.

“We urgently need more binding agreements at national and global level to deal with these issues in order to safeguard and develop democracy. Democracy is very vulnerable, it can easily erode. If we leave things as they are, the desert of totalitarianism is waiting to emerge.”

Nipuna Kumbalathara, Communications Lead at CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organizations, told IPS: “Indeed, a serious threat to democratic rights and values is emanating from right wing media channels and online portals who are adept at spreading disinformation and reinforcing prejudice against minorities and excluded people”.

Politicians too, he said, are contributing to the growing epidemic of deliberate spread of half-truths and misleading information. Such trends were accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic when authoritarians and populists attempted to suppress the truth about the impact of the disease on affected people and sought to play up the effectiveness of their responses.

This promoted UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to call for a code of conduct on the integrity of public information in his Our Common Agenda report. It is unclear how much progress has been made on the code of conduct.

Moreover, in times when civic space conditions are at a historic low around the world, he argued, “technology is being weaponised by repressive state apparatuses to illicitly surveil, malign and persecute civil society activists and journalists engaged in exposing lies and uncovering the truth.”

Asked for a response, AI-Generated Microsoft Copilot said:

Efforts to address this threat include promoting digital and media literacy, urging social media platforms to label A.I.-generated content, and raising awareness about the risks1. Vigilance and collaboration are essential to safeguarding democratic institutions from A.I.-driven disinformation.

Elaborating further, Blinken told the Seoul summit: “Our democracies are hardly immune to the harms from AI misuse and failure, including impacts from the choices that tech companies make in deploying their innovations – from our citizens being able to access fewer and less diverse media sources because of the failures of AI-enabled search engines, to discrimination and bias that disproportionately affect racial and ethnic minorities.

“The United States is determined to shape the terms of our technological future in a way that’s inclusive, rights-respecting, that sustains democratic values and democratic institutions. We’ve made historic investments in our technological capabilities and those of our democratic partners,” he declared.

“We can see, we can feel the tremendous excitement about AI around the world, and in fact, nowhere more so than in the vast global majority countries. There’s a sense that this is a tool, a means by which to genuinely accelerate progress. And we’re already seeing some of that”.

Kenya, for example, has deployed a new AI-enabled bot that enables women and girls to access comprehensive and accurate reproductive health information.

Chile developed “Creamos,” an AI-supported tool that encourages young people to contribute their ideas to foster social change and to advance sustainable development.

In Ukraine, an anti-corruption organization and tech companies came together on an AI-enabled system to accurately document attacks on cultural heritage and civilian infrastructure, which is strengthening Ukraine’s prosecution of war crimes.

“We also know that AI has tremendous power to drive development that directly improves people’s lives – and in doing so, earn the confidence of our people, people around the world, in our democratic model,” Blinken said.

“But here’s the reality. Right now, the world is on track to achieve just 12 percent – just 12 percent – of the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. So, we are way behind.”

But AI could accelerate progress on 80 percent of the goals – from improving agricultural productivity to combatting hunger, to detecting and preventing outbreaks of disease, to accelerating our clean energy transition that creates jobs and protects our planet at the same time.

Meanwhile, on March 21, the 193-member UN General Assembly adopted by consensus a U.S.-led resolution on “Seizing the opportunities of safe, secure and trustworthy artificial intelligence systems for sustainable development”— the first-ever stand-alone resolution negotiated at the UN General Assembly to establish a global consensus approach to AI governance.

The resolution encourages Member States to promote safe, secure, and trustworthy AI systems by:

    • Cooperating with and providing capacity building and technical and financial assistance to developing countries;
    • Closing the AI divides and other digital divides that exist between and within countries;
    • Promoting equitable access to the benefits of AI systems;
    • Respecting, protecting, and promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms throughout the life cycle of AI systems;
    • Protecting individuals from all forms of discrimination, bias, misuse, or other harm from AI systems;
    • Developing regulatory and governance approaches and frameworks related to AI systems;
    • Testing AI systems prior to deployment and use;
    • Raising public awareness of the appropriate civil use of AI systems;
    • Encouraging the development of tools that identify AI-generated digital content and their origin;
    • Safeguarding privacy and the protection of personal data;
    • Respecting intellectual property rights;
    • Mitigating the potential negative consequences for workforces; and
    • Encouraging the private sector to adhere to applicable international and domestic laws.

IPS UN Bureau Report


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