Navigating New Frontiers: AI and the Future of Political Campaigns in Africa

AS interest is raised on the International Political Campaigns Expo (IPE) 2024 we are confronted with questions such as: Why now, and why Africa?

The answer to these questions is two-fold.

Here we seek to expand on why, in the face of declining traditional political engagement and a surge in alternative political movements, such a focus on innovative campaign strategies is necessary and urgent.

The International Political Campaigns Expo in Africa comes at a time of growing voter apathy and enthusiasm for unconventional political change, especially among younger demographics.

Firstly, we are witnessing a global crisis in democratic engagement, with nearly 45% of eligible voters opting out of the electoral process. This widespread disengagement reflects a deep-seated disillusionment with existing political mechanisms and a lack of trust in elected officials.

Secondly, alongside this apathy is a concerning rise in positive attitudes, particularly among 18- to 24-year-olds, to unconventional and sometimes unconstitutional methods of political change. This demographic shift signals a critical juncture for political systems, emphasising the need to reimagine and revitalise how political campaigns are conducted.

As this crisis unfolds, the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) and other technological tools presents a unique opportunity to enhance how political campaigns engage, target, and mobilise voters.

However, the implementation of these tools across Africa is not uniform, affected by varying levels of infrastructure, connectivity, and resources. The cost, internet connectivity, and resource levels of each political party or candidate would significantly determine the feasibility and effectiveness of these tools.

In the era of rapid technological advancements, political campaigns have witnessed a transformative impact.

From text manipulation to deepfakes and image generation, the utilisation of various emerging technologies has fundamentally altered the landscape of electoral processes.

However, with great power comes great responsibility, as these tools can be employed for either noble purposes or manipulative abuse.

IPE2024 seeks to explore how different aspects of technology can be wielded during political campaigns and to what extent they can address the low levels of participation of citizens in elections. To date, political campaigns have remained stuck on rallies, posters, and whistle-stops as tools for targeting voters, with less innovation and imagination and ultimately, with decreasing levels of engagement.

What then are these AI tools that are being touted as game changers?

  1. Text manipulation: Text manipulation holds the potential to tweak messages, exploit language nuances, and sway public opinion. While the skillful use of language can inspire and mobilise voters, unethical manipulation can distort facts and deceive the electorate, thereby undermining the democratic process. Stricter regulations and transparency standards are necessary to ensure the responsible use of text manipulation techniques in political campaigns.
  2. Image generation: Image generation technologies have revolutionised the visual aspect of political campaigns. Candidates can employ visual storytelling to connect emotionally with voters. However, this tool can also be misused to fabricate images, manipulate appearances, or spread false narratives. Initiating public awareness campaigns to foster media literacy and fact-checking can curb the potential abuses of image generation.
  3. Speech recognition: Speech recognition technology brings the power of language to life, enabling candidates to communicate with diverse audiences. Authenticity and inclusivity are paramount here, as misusing this technology to generate artificial speeches or misrepresent candidates’ intentions can damage public trust. Maintaining accountability through rigorous fact-checking and source verification mechanisms is crucial.
  4. Deepfakes: Among the most concerning technological advancements is the rise of deepfakes. These AI-generated videos can convincingly depict individuals saying or doing things they never did. In political campaigns, deepfakes possess the potential to sow discord, spread misinformation, and undermine the credibility of candidates. It is imperative for policymakers to establish legal frameworks that address the malicious use of deepfakes to preserve truth and protect democratic processes.
  5. Visual reasoning: By harnessing visual reasoning technologies, political campaigns have an opportunity to deliver complex messages and data-driven arguments effectively. However, caution must be exercised to ensure the fair presentation of facts and prevent the manipulation of data to fit predetermined narratives. Implementing transparency mechanisms and third-party audits can help maintain the integrity of visual reasoning tools.
  6. Text summarisation: Text summarisation enables campaigns to distill complex policy platforms into digestible formats, promoting wider public engagement. Yet, the risk lies in oversimplification or selective summarisation, leading to a distorted representation of candidates’ positions. Encouraging comprehensive media coverage and promoting public access to detailed policy documents can mitigate any potential misuse.
  7. Sentiment analysis: Sentiment analysis allows campaigns to gauge public opinion and tailor their messages accordingly. While this could enhance responsiveness to constituent concerns, exploiting sentiment analysis to manipulate public sentiment or employ divisive tactics is a genuine danger. Encouraging transparency in campaign messaging and facilitating open dialogue can help curb these abuses.
  8. Speech recognition: Speech recognition technology amplifies candidates’ ability to reach out to wider audiences. However, similar to text manipulation, misuse of speech recognition can distort candidates’ messages, misrepresent their proposals, or spread false information. Promoting authenticity in campaign communications, along with robust fact-checking practices, plays a pivotal role in preserving electoral integrity.

With the opportunity that comes with these tools, it remains to be seen how adept and flexible political parties will be in exploring their use. As technology continues to shape political campaigns, it is crucial to strike a balance between utilising these tools for positive change and guarding against their potential abuses. Stricter regulations, enhanced media literacy, open dialogue, and accountability mechanisms can help create a political landscape that leverages technology responsibly, promoting fairness, transparency, and informed democratic decision-making for all.

IPE2024, set for 25 and 26 January in Cape Town, is the inaugural expo of this kind, dedicated to advancing the innovative, transformative, and ethical use of AI and big data in political campaigns.

  • To be a part of the future, register on our website at www.internationalpolexpo.com and follow @IPE_Official_ on social media for updates.

Stay informed with The Namibian – your source for credible journalism. Get in-depth reporting and opinions for only N$85 a month. Invest in journalism, invest in democracy –
Subscribe Now!