Misinformation and AI in the Election Cycle

The Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence host a timely discussion to help navigate the chaos of the election season

(Photo by Allison Joyce/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
By Bob Keyes
February 27, 2024

With the primary season here and a presidential election approaching, U.S. citizens who participate in the political process face unprecedented threats from propaganda, false information, and conspiracy theories aimed at influencing how they vote.

The level of misinformation and disinformation bombarding voters is so great it risks undermining the election, said Amanda Stent, director of the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence at Colby.

“This is urgent. I am deeply concerned that this election is going to be swung by some AI-generated or AI-propagated misinformation and disinformation. Already, the government has shut down multiple bot networks from China and Russia, and there are also the enemies from within,” she said, noting that robocalls using an AI-generated voice resembling President Joe Biden urging New Hampshire voters not to participate in that state’s primary originated in Texas.

Beginning Sunday, March 3, the Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs will host a timely two-day event about misinformation, disinformation, and the role of artificial intelligence in the 2024 election cycle. Assistant Professor of African-American Studies Sonya Donaldson will moderate a public discussion, Misinformation and Artificial Intelligence in the 2024 Election Cycle, at 7 p.m. Monday at Ostrove Auditorium in the Diamond Building.

Panelists include Ellen Weintraub, a member of the U.S. Federal Election Commission; Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project; and Patrick Conlon, a former Defense Department intelligence analyst and linguist, former threat analyst at Twitter, and now principal analyst at Alethea, a technology company founded by Lisa Kaplan ’13. Registration is encouraged, and the session will be livestreamed. 

Super Tuesday at hand

With the Super Tuesday primary coming March 5, the discussion could not be more timely.

“At least 64 countries around the world are holding elections in 2024. We are already seeing the impact of AI-generated content on elections in both countries, like Pakistan, and states, such as  New Hampshire, as well as emerging regulation of generative AI in the electoral context,” Stent said. “The upcoming panel at Colby brings together experts from government, nonprofits, and industry to discuss this timely and critical topic.”

Alison Beyea, executive director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs, said technology has played a role in American elections for decades, but the burst of activity in the realm of artificial intelligence has “changed the playing field. It’s vitally important for our students and our community to understand how this new technology is changing the landscape of our elections and how they can be better aware of its presence. We hope people who attend the panel discussion will get a sense of the tools they can use to actually combat misinformation. They will gain an understanding of the threats and what they can do about them.”

Ellen L. Weintraub, chair of the U.S. Federal Election Commission, will be part of a panel discussion titled Misinformation and Artificial Intelligence in the 2024 Election Cycle, at 7 p.m. Monday at Ostrove Auditorium in the Diamond Building. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for PEN America)

Misinformation is considered to be false or inaccurate information. Disinformation is false information that is deliberately intended to mislead. No one is immune from either, Stent said.

“Everybody today experiences different levels of propaganda based on things as simple as your first and last names, where you live, and your behavior online,” she said.

“Every voter should know to be very critical and suspicious of everything they see online this political season.”

Amanda Stent, Director, Davis Institute for Artificial Intelligence

As an example, many college students are targeted by online ads suggesting they are not eligible to vote in the state where they attend school, with a goal to create confusion and discourage them from voting. But in Maine, students have the right to register in the municipality where they attend school, provided they have established a voting residence there as defined by Maine election laws. 

The two-day event begins at 4 p.m. Sunday with the annual Freedom of Expression Symposium and prize competition, sponsored by the Goldfarb Center, also at Ostrove. Students compete for up to $2,000 in prize money by writing policy proposals and giving public presentations that respond to a pressing issue in policymaking or public affairs. This year’s theme is “Misinformation in American Politics.” The writing prompt was, “Propose a policy aimed at combating misinformation in American politics.”

Monday’s panel discussion will be preceded at 6 p.m. by a demonstration of tools and technologies that create misinformation and disinformation as well as those that detect it and help protect an individual’s data from being targeted. 

Weintraub will be on campus both days and will help judge the student competition on Sunday afternoon. Prior to the panel discussion on Monday, she will visit classes and talk to students directly about election-related issues.

“Having a member of the Federal Election Commission on campus, who is front and center in this work right now, is a unique opportunity for Colby students and the Colby community to understand what is happening in real time in this election cycle,” Beyea said. “We are thrilled the commissioner was able to take time to meet with our students and appreciate her deep commitment to the next generation.”