Oct 10, 2023 - Technology

AI, social media drive democracies to a tipping point

Data: National election authorities; Note: The EU election will run June 6-9.; Chart: Axios Visuals

Experts are blaming AI and misinformation on social media for pushing embattled democracies around the world toward a tipping point of distrust.

Why it matters: The rise of cheap and easy-to-use generative AI tools, the lack of legal guardrails for their deployment and relaxed content moderation policies and layoffs at tech companies are creating the conditions for a perfect misinformation storm.

Driving the news: X, which in its former incarnation as Twitter was the go-to platform for breaking news developments, has flooded with misinformation in the wake of Hamas' attack on Israel.

What's next: India, the United States and Indonesia — the world's three biggest democracies — will hold national elections in 2024, alongside the 27-country European Parliament.

  • Nations at geopolitical flashpoints — including Ukraine, Taiwan and South Korea — will also hold elections, and Israel, which has held five elections since 2019, could head back to polls.
  • Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), who co-led the investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. 2016 election, told Axios that Russia's actions were "child's play, compared to what either domestic or foreign AI tools could do to completely screw up our elections," given the scale of information AI can now generate.

The big picture: A global trend in the late 20th century toward democracy has reversed today, and there are now more autocracies than liberal democracies in the world.

  • Experts differ on the percentages but agree that the number of people living outside free countries is growing: Freedom House says it's 56%, while Sweden's University of Gothenburg says it's 72% and "back to 1986 levels."
  • "If these trends since 2016 are not changed, democracy falls off the cliff," Rappler CEO and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa told Axios.

Be smart: The Poynter Institute recommends users ask themselves three questions when encountering social media posts about the Hamas-Israel war: Who's behind the information? What's the evidence? And what do other sources say?

What they're saying: "Politicians absolutely understand that their livelihoods could be completely disrupted — in a completely bipartisan way — by these tools," Warner said.

  • "The goal of information warfare is not to make you believe one thing, it's to make you doubt everything," Ressa told Axios. "When you don't have facts, you don't have election integrity," she said.
  • "Online violence became real world violence in America — and we saw how fragile institutions are, even in America," Ressa said.
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