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20 Jun 2024

Shamira Ahmed et Mehari Taddele Maru, The Conversation

Artificial Intelligence can make African elections more efficient say experts

"AI can make African elections more efficient – but trust must be built and proper rules put in place", 17 June 2024

Time magazine has dubbed 2024 a “super election year”. An astonishing 4 billion people are eligible to vote in countries across the world this year. Many are on the African continent, where presidential, parliamentary and general elections have already been held or are set for the latter half of the year.

Artificial intelligence (AI) will play a major role in many countries’ elections. In fact, it already does. AI systems are used in a number of ways. They analyse large amounts of data, like voter patterns. They run automated chatbots for voter engagement. They authenticate voters and detect cyber threats.

But many pundits and ordinary people alike seem unsure what to make of the use of AI in African electoral processes. It is often described as simultaneously promising and perilous.

We are experts on transnational governance whose ongoing research aims to define the challenges AI could pose to legitimate governance in Africa. We want to help create a base of empirical evidence that the continent’s electoral bodies can use to harness the potential benefits of AI and similar technologies while not ignoring the risks.

The effects of AI on electoral democracy in Africa will fundamentally depend on two factors. First, popular legitimacy and trust in AI. Second, the capability of African states to govern, regulate, and enforce oversight on the use of AI by all political stakeholders, including ruling and opposition parties...

It is too simplistic to say that the use of AI in elections is all good or all bad. The truth is that it can be both, fundamentally depending on two key factors: the public’s trust in AI and the ability of African states to regulate the use of AI by key stakeholders.

Identity politics, diversity, and digital illiteracy must also be taken into account. These all play a role in the rise of polarisation and whether political constituencies are particularly susceptible to disinformation and misinformation...

But AI also has the potential to enhance electoral legitimacy. Kenya’s 2022 Umati project monitored social media for hate speech using computerised analysis known as natural language processing. Once harmful content had been flagged by the AI it was removed. During Sierra Leone’s 2021 general election its Election Monitoring and Analysis Platform identified and countered hate speech, disinformation and violence incitement...

And ethical concerns cannot be ignored. For example, Kenya’s Huduma Namba national ID system and Nigeria’s telecommunication companies have been criticised for inadequate data protection. They’ve also been accused of using AI technology for surveillance. In South Africa, a 2021 lawsuit took on Facebook for allegedly violating users’ privacy rights.

African countries need to allay people’s very valid concerns about ethics and data privacy in election technology. Part of doing so involves the development of robust normative, institutional and collaborative frameworks to govern the use of AI in fair, transparent and accountable ways. African states must seek to exercise sovereignty on AI systems – that is, they need to develop their own systems, fit for local purposes, rather than just importing systems from elsewhere...