For much of the last century, segregationists and their anti-Black racist allies who were intent on ensuring that African Americans couldn’t exercise the right to vote, erected an assortment of barriers to that end.
Segregationists used the courts, local and state laws, literacy tests, poll taxes, fraud, brute force, violence and intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan to impede and prevent Black people from exercising their Constitutional right.
In the 21st century, voter suppression has gone high-tech with the same characters still plotting to control who votes, when and how. They are employing an assortment of methods including artificial intelligence (AI). Concerns about misuse of AI in the electoral ecosystem is what brought Melanie Campbell and Damon T. Hewitt to testify before the U.S. Congress.
Campbell, president and CEO of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation (NCBCP) and convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable (BWR), spoke of the urgency around creating safeguards and federal legislation to protect against the technology’s misuse as it relates to elections, democracy, and voter education, while fighting back against the increasing threats surrounding targeted misinformation and disinformation.
“AI has the potential to be a significant threat because of how rapidly it’s moving,” Campbell said. “There was Russian targeting of Black men with misinformation in 2020 to encourage them not to vote. It started in 2016.”
Both civil rights leaders warned that misinformation driven by artificial intelligence may worsen considerably for African American voters leading up to the 2024 presidential election.
“What we have seen through our work demonstrates how racial justice, voting rights, and technology are inextricably linked,” said Hewitt, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law during his testimony.
“Voters of color already face disproportionate barriers to the ballot box that make it more difficult and more costly for them to vote without factoring in the large and growing cost of targeted mis- and disinformation on our communities.”
Campbell and Hewitt said that during recent election cycles, African Americans have been specifically targeted by disinformation campaigns. The pair referred to a lawsuit, NCBCP vs. Wohl, filed by the Lawyers’ Committee and involving NCBCP which was a plaintiff two men who targeted Black voters in New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio disinformation via robocalls in an effort to sway the outcome of the 2020 Elections.
The goal was to discourage African Americans from voting by mail, lying that their personal information would be added to a public database used by law enforcement to execute warrants; to collect credit card debts; and by public health entities to force people to take mandatory vaccinations.
“These threats played upon systemic inequities likely to resonate with and intimidate Black Americans,” Hewitt said. The methods used for those deceptive robocalls in 2020 look primitive by 2023 standards.
Campbell concurred. She said AI would allow this type of weaponization to be more significant using texts, video and audio.
“AI increases the ability to do that in larger formats” she said. “You have open source where just about anyone who wants to can use AI for nefarious means. There is a lot of angst with those doing voting rights and elections work.”
Campbell and Hewitt agree that the exploding capabilities of AI technology can drastically multiply the amount of harm to American democracy. Campbell adds that Google, Microsoft and Meta are the front-line companies who activists hope will step up and put guardrails in place before the 2024 elections is overwhelmed by AI-driven misinformation and disinformation.
“In malicious hands and absent strong regulation, AI can clone voices so that calls sound like trusted public figures, election officials, or even possibly friends and relatives,” said Hewitt. “The technology could reach targeted individuals across platforms, following up the AI call with targeted online advertisements, fake bot accounts seeking to follow them on social media, customized emails or WhatsApp messages, and carefully tailored memes.”
AI regulation should include transparency and “explainability” requirements so people are made aware of when, how, and why AI is being used to ensure that it is not used to grab data from those who have not given their consent. Voter information should not be tied to private information to target voters without safeguards.
The effort being led by the Lawyers’ Committee and the NCBCP comes against the backdrop of similar alarm from the Biden administration, some lawmakers and AI experts who fear that AI will be weaponized to spread disinformation to heighten the distrust that significant numbers of Americans have towards the government and politicians.
President Joe Biden recently signed what’s described as “a sweeping executive order” that focuses on algorithmic bias, preserving privacy and regulation on the safety of frontier AI models. The executive order also encourages open development of AI technologies, innovations in AI security and building tools to improve security.
Vice President Kamala Harris echoed others concerned about this issue who fear that malevolent actors misusing AI could upend democratic institutions and cause Americans’ confidence in democracy to plunge precipitously.
“When people around the world cannot discern fact from fiction because of a flood of AI-enabled disinformation and misinformation, I ask, ‘Is that not existential?” Harris said in a speech at the 2023 AI Safety Summit in London, England. Harris concluded, “We’re going to do everything we can. This is one of the biggest concerns most people have.”
Barrington Salmon is an NNPA contributing writer. This commentary was edited for length.