3 Questions for

Jessica Heesen

Head of the research focus on media ethics and information technology at the Ethics Centre of the University of Tübingen.

Democratic elections in the age of AI: "We need good journalism, media education and personal responsibility"

In the run-up to democratic elections, experts have increasingly warned against attempts to influence voting decisions with targeted misinformation in recent years. While disinformation is not a new phenomenon in political debates and conflict situations, the use of artificial intelligence (AI) can exacerbate the threat. This puts pressure on the free formation of opinion as a pillar of democracy. In this interview, Jessica Heesen explains the extent to which generative AI applications can be used to influence elections and what can be done about it. The philosopher and media ethicist heads the research focus on media ethics and information technology at the International Centre for Ethics in the Sciences and Humanities at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen as well as the "IT Security and Privacy, Law and Ethics" working group of Plattform Lernende Systeme.


To what extent can generative AI influence democratic opinion-forming?

Jessica Heesen: Generative AI can artificially create and manipulate deceptively real photos, videos and voices of real people. In this way, politicians can be made to say things that they have never said. Recently in the USA, for example, an AI-faked Joe Biden called potential voters and gave advice on voting behaviour. But there are other possible abuses. AI can be used to put pressure on or blackmail female politicians with supposed naked pictures. Overall, AI can create a general mistrust of images and media reporting. This climate of mistrust is detrimental to democracy and opinion-forming. In addition, populists, for example, can profit from it and even claim that true reporting is false and a deepfake. This is known as a "liar's dividend".

When we think of chatbots - another prominent use of generative AI - we also have a problem with the answers that the assistants give to questions about election programmes or political figures, for example. They are often wrong. Chatbots must not be misunderstood as search engines!


Does AI also offer opportunities to strengthen democratic elections and open opinion-forming?

Jessica Heesen: AI can help to make information on the internet more accessible and personalised. With the help of AI, I can find exactly the information on the election that matches my interests. It is conceivable that AI systems will be developed that work in a similar way to an election o-mat. Voters can then easily compare party programmes and election statements and weight the results according to their attitude. In addition, there are already applications that can recognise the political colouring of texts and accordingly make counter-suggestions for other sources to broaden the spectrum of opinion.

It should not be forgotten that AI can help to identify false information in social media. AI can also recognise and delete hate speech at an early stage when moderating chats on political discussions.


What needs to be done now to ensure open and fair elections?

Jessica Heesen: Open and fair elections must not depend on individual technologies in the short term. Rather, it is about enabling trustworthy public communication through good journalism and independent and diverse media. Under these conditions, misinformation and deepfakes can be identified and corrected on a serious basis. Media education also plays a key role. Ultimately, we are all called upon to think critically, scrutinise media content and not share it carelessly on social media. Shaping a vibrant democracy is always a challenge and can only succeed with personal responsibility and stable institutions and infrastructures.



The interview is released for editorial use (provided the source is cited © Plattform Lernende Systeme).

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