AI – a new political tale

Glen Mpani

Glen Mpani

Published Feb 22, 2024


Glen Mpani

Artificial intelligence (AI) has seamlessly woven itself into the fabric of contemporary political communication.

Political campaigns have expanded from face-to-face interactions and the disbursement of information via print, radio and television communications, to the distribution of textual and multimedia messaging across different internet platforms.

Digitalisation has become to democratisation what seasoning is to a well-prepared dish. The quality of our democracies is in part measured by widespread access to online sites and tools for political communication during and outside election periods.

The International Political Campaigns Expo in Africa (IPE2024), which was held on January 25 and 26, at the Cape Town International Convention Centre (CTICC), sought to explore how political communication has been impacted by the growing use of AI.

The deliberations were held by a wide range of stakeholders from media entities, civil society, political parties, electoral management bodies, academia, and tech companies.

Persistent challenges associated with the use of AI for political communication include unequal access to information and communication technology services (ICTS). Digital privileges are often afforded to urban populations, which usually make up the minority voting populations in African democracies.

According to the World Bank, only 36% of Africans have access to broadband internet access and the quality of available services lags that of other regions in the world.

That notwithstanding, the disruptive influence of AI in modern political campaigning has a negative impact on voting trends. As one delegate noted, it takes one citizen with access to the internet to relay the political insights they derive from internet usage to their family members and fellow villagers.

Therefore, curbing misinformation, disinformation, and spread of fake online content is crucial.

Citizen education would have to be conducted using both social and traditional media platforms. Considering the generally low levels of digital literacy on the continent, education initiatives need to be implemented in accordance with contextual realities such as literacy levels, language diversity, and age, among other factors.

According to a report by the Mastercard Foundation, only 50% of countries in Africa teach digital literacy in their school curricula, compared with 85% of countries globally.

While some called for the localisation of AI deployment to suit African audiences, many were concerned about the disruptive impact of AI in modern political scenarios. Recommendations regarding localised usage included disbursing information in multiple languages for wider reach and inclusivity, as well as the deployment of local chatbots and fact-checking tools.

However, these adoptions would add another layer to already complex challenges. Investing in language modelling and customised communication channels requires a lot of funding and skilled tech personnel. Furthermore, applicability depends on context. Considering the diverse nature of African countries, each has to conduct their own needs-based assessment to ascertain how best to keep up with digitalisation trends for the purposes of political communication.

Media representatives and campaign experts discussed the importance of positioning AI as a strategic tool for tailored messaging for different constituents, with big data research providing major insights regarding voters’ concerns and interests, while results from poll forecasting could promote citizens’ interest in political processes.

While there is no guarantee that politicians can accurately tailor campaigns to the needs of the electorate to a tee, digitalisation does promote democratic trends such as multipartyism and multiple campaign methods.

While the panel on “AI and political communication” offered diverse insights regarding opportunities that can be leveraged, they noted concerns regarding data sovereignty. There is no effective global voluntary code on AI and copyright, making it difficult to disprove allegations linked to fake content.

Fast-paced advancements in generative AI developments undermine efforts to develop codes for ethical use. Fascination with images, audio and video content created with generative AI in general, makes it difficult to call for a global compact against the use of such technologies for political communication. The aim after all is to engage netizens using the platforms and methods of communication which appeal to them.

Communication is an asset to the global society, and adoption of tech tools implies smart campaigning; ideal for the modern world. Former Kenyan president Uhuru Kenyatta and his then opponent, Raila Odinga, spent tens of millions of dollars on data mining and crafting targeted advertisements, using global PR firms.

The involvement of data analysis companies raised concerns regarding digital security and the role of the firms in manipulation poll outcomes with false information. There is a moral dimension to identifying the utility of AI in political communication.

Considering the relatively low levels of trust in electoral processes, African politicians need to be wary of losing popularity due to untrusted methods of campaigning. Further polarisation could prevail when it comes to the urban-rural divide.

This holds true in contexts where ruling parties benefit more from canvassing in rural areas, reaching out in person to significant voter populations. On the other hand, online politicking, which is less effective in such contexts, mostly targets urban-based citizens who are less likely to vote.

While personalised political messaging holds the key to better voter engagement and participation, voters’ engagement preferences differ from context to context. Growing apathy could be further exacerbated by over-reliance on online tools for political campaigning. Investing in field work instead of over relying on online surveys is also crucial for a real feel of matters on the ground.

For now, the potential benefits of AI for political communication remain shrouded in misinformation, fears regarding information integrity, security and the lack of local jurisdiction to regulate use.

As we look towards the 2025 International Political Campaigns Expo, there is a pressing need to continue assessing the implications of AI adoption for political communication. With elections looming in almost a third of African countries in 2024, there is much to be learnt from ongoing developments in the field.

Glen Mpani is the Host and Convenor of the International Political Campaigns Expo (IPE) 2024.

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