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Enter AI: Shaping Pakistan 2024 elections and beyond

February 1, 2024 at 2:44 pm

Artificial Intelligence, AI [Wikipedia]

2024 marks a pivotal moment for global democracy as seven of the world’s ten most populous nations gear up for crucial elections. These nations, collectively representing nearly half of the world’s population, are on the brink of determining their future leadership and the trajectory of their countries. Simultaneously, 2024 has been coined the ‘Year of Artificial Intelligence (AI)’, prompting widespread curiosity and concern about the potential influence of AI on electoral processes worldwide, signifying a potentially transformative shift in electioneering.

While AI can enable hyper-personalised messaging and enhance campaign effectiveness, ethical concerns arise over potential public opinion manipulation and algorithmic biases. Predictive analytics, a cornerstone of modern campaigns and one of the most effective uses of algorithms has long raised questions about transparency and reinforcing existing biases, particularly after the Cambridge Analytica debacle associated with the surprising Trump victory in the 2016 US Presidential election. Despite the obvious efficiency and data analysis advantages, ethical considerations, potential biases and privacy concerns necessitate careful evaluation. Case studies across diverse political contexts provide insights into AI’s advantageous and detrimental aspects in political campaigning.

READ: Pakistan court sentences ex-PM Imran Khan to 10 years in prison

Pakistan is one of those seven countries gearing up for a general election on 8 February, 2024, and is also an interesting case study of the use of AI in political campaigning. The run-up to the election has been nothing short of extraordinary. Ten days away from the election, former Prime Minister, Imran Khan, and former Foreign Minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, from what many consider the most popular political party in the country, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), have been handed ten-year sentences for allegedly sharing state secrets, in what is being claimed as a hasty decision made by a contentious court. Recently, PTI revealed its election manifesto amid nationwide political rallies. However, these gatherings encountered resistance in major cities, where police intervention resulted in the arrest and injury of dozens of leaders and citizens. Nobody can take Imran Khan’s name on national television or show his face. Political candidates affiliated with the PTI have faced challenges conducting their campaigns, and the party’s official websites have been blocked in the country. PTI’s electoral symbol, the cricket bat, given Imran Khan’s illustrious cricketing career, has been revoked. In a country with low literacy rates, the importance of such tactics cannot be underestimated.

In Pakistan’s history, such attacks on democratic processes are, unfortunately, not rare. The names may change from Bhutto to Khan, but the methods applied remain the same. However, what distinguishes the present situation is the innovative utilisation of technology to navigate obstacles in the democratic path. While valid apprehensions linger regarding the use of AI to potentially disrupt democratic processes, the narrative unfolding in Pakistan emphasises the democratising influence that AI can wield.

In the lead-up to the General Election, the PTI faced a unique challenge, as official permission for traditional political rallies was withheld. Consequently, the PTI circumvented these hurdles by opting for virtual online rallies on various social media platforms. Imran Khan had been unable to address audiences for the upcoming elections, so AI-powered speeches were used during these virtual rallies, one of the first occasions for an international leader to do so. Despite reported internet outages and disruptions during the live stream, the PTI claimed over five million views. Facing website blocks within the country, the PTI shifted its website to GitHub and devised an offline app, ensuring access to critical information like candidate symbols and polling stations, both of which have become increasingly difficult to get. They have also integrated an AI chatbot with Imran Khan’s Facebook account. AI-driven chatbots engage voters through personalised text messages, real-time updates and conversations, creating a scalable virtual outreach for candidates. For an incarcerated political leader, particularly during an election in which many international human rights organisations allege pre-poll rigging, this can be game-changing. However, it also opens up Pakistan, a country where only one out of three have access to a Smartphone, which can be a reflection of its relatively lower-tech savviness, open to misinformation and misuse. This is especially as Deepfake AI technology progresses, which has many international and local experts quite apprehensive.

The PTI has long been synonymous with being a party that resonates with the youth, referred to as “youthiyas” in a creative linguistic twist. This characteristic has become especially conspicuous in the lead-up to the 2024 Pakistani General Election. The Party’s adept use of technology, notably AI, signifies not just a paradigm shift in how political campaigns are orchestrated in Pakistan but also reflects a broader evolution within the Pakistani electorate – a transformation that may transcend mere demographics. While it is undeniable that AI presents notable challenges in fully realising its potential for enhancing political campaigns, the unravelling story of Pakistan’s 2024 General Election strongly suggests that discarding this technological tool altogether would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The youth-driven energy and tech-savvy approach employed by the PTI can serve as a case study, underscoring the need for a nuanced understanding of AI’s role in shaping more effective and inclusive political campaigning strategies worldwide. While most experts delve rightly into the risk to democracy created by AI, PTI proved that there is another side to the coin and that AI can also play a positive role in deteriorating democracies.

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