What CSMaP Experts Are Watching Ahead of the 2024 Election

July 10, 2024  ·   News

From generative AI and misinformation, to young voters and TikTok, part one of our new series highlights several areas we’re looking at this year.

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This year has been called the year of elections. In addition to a critical presidential election in the United States, more than 70 countries, representing half the world’s population, have voted or will vote in 2024.

Many are worried that a variety of factors, both here and abroad, could undermine the integrity of the electoral process, including advances in generative AI, a surge of disinformation and foreign influence campaigns, threats to election officials, and declining trust in media and other democratic institutions.

At CSMaP, our research explores some of the biggest questions at the intersection of technology and democracy. While it’s too early to rigorously research and understand the impact of these concerns, our scholars and experts — past, present, and future — are closely watching several issues in the 2024 elections. 

This article, the first in a series, highlights several themes that emerged from our team.

Generative AI

One of the biggest election concerns this year revolves around generative AI. We’ve already seen AI used in one major election in India, where the worst fears did not come to fruition. Still, there has been a lot of discussion about how generative AI can facilitate the production and distribution of misinformation, deepfakes, and polarizing content, making disinformation campaigns more effective by facilitating personalization, according to CSMaP Faculty Research Affiliate Tiago Ventura.

These arguments are quite sensational given what we have learned about the prevalence of online misinformation in the past 10 years: We don’t have much misinformation online, its exposure is heavily skewed, and the effects of being exposed are on average tiny, or mostly null. I am interested in testing if these arguments are actually correct, and if the misinformation game has actually changed with the popularization of AI. I suspect the answer is no, but we need rigorous science to say so.  

Outside of the misinformation issue, I am also interested in several other issues at the intersection between AI and politics. For example, how political campaigns are using AI to communicate with voters; how voters are using AI tools to learn about politics, to express their opinions online, and to search about electoral information; and, finally, how the use of AI in campaigns is being regulated across different countries.

Just this week, CSMaP launched a new project seeking to track how political campaigns use AI this year.

Young Voters & TikTok

In 2020, young people voted in record numbers. But in the years after, Gen Z has seen substantial rollbacks on issues they care about, from the fall of Roe v. Wade to the potential banning of TikTok. As a result, many are currently feeling disillusioned with the political system. This has resulted in widespread apathy and pessimism in youth political discussion online, said Cristina de la Puerta, CSMaP’s Program Administrator. 

During the advent of social media, there was so much hope that it would increase political participation by democratizing information and creating platforms for people to organize. A lot has changed since then though. When I go online, and when I talk to my friends about what they see online, the experience of "doomscrolling" almost always comes up. Rather than informing and connecting people, posts highlighting fears and faux pas are shaping political discussions on social media. I’ll be curious to see if that influences the youth vote at all and whether participation in this election will be lower than in previous years.

Along these lines, our Tech Policy Fellow Lama Mohammed is watching how influencers and online activists will use TikTok to mobilize efforts around youth voter turnout this November. 

Many young people who use TikTok will follow a favorite influencer or set of them for news, trusting that they provide accurate information instead of journalists or candidates themselves. How could these influencers encourage or deter young people from voting? And if so, for which candidates? 

Given the fragmenting digital information ecosystem and the continuous erosion of trust in the media, many young people are also disillusioned with traditional news and tend to get their daily digest from social media. Already, one-third of U.S. adults under 30 report getting their news from TikTok. I get nervous about this because while the app has helped young people discover their political identity, what role can it play in fueling polarization or keeping individuals in a self-affirming echo chamber?

It is challenging for researchers to deduce conclusive answers to these questions because TikTok is still very new. Video-based platforms like TikTok also have less methodological history and are more expensive to study, reaffirming the criticality of data access legislation ahead of this upcoming presidential election.

Misleading Information

Finally, we hear a lot about misinformation and disinformation online. But one area that has been under-scrutinized is the role of misleading as opposed to outright false news, said Jennifer Allen, who will join CSMaP as Core Faculty in Fall 2025.

Despite garnering a lot of attention in the mainstream press, "Pope-endorses-Trump" style fake news makes up a tiny percentage of people's information diets. However, our recent Science paper found that misleading content from mainstream outlets was seen several orders of magnitude more than the outright false stuff — and was estimated to have a substantial effect on Covid vaccine hesitancy. That paper looked specifically at vaccine related news, but there's reason to believe this pattern extends to political content as well. 

In the leadup to the 2020 presidential election, the most widely viewed headline on Facebook read "Military ballots found in the trash in Pennsylvania – most were Trump votes," seen over 100 million times. The headline was technically accurate (and not flagged by fact-checkers), but it omitted that only nine total ballots were found (seven for Trump, other candidates unknown). Yet the story was widely reported in the mainstream media and used by election deniers to question the security of voting-by-mail. 

I think there’s a big reason to fear a similar situation in 2024. For example, the New York Post claimed that a misleadingly-cropped video clip showed Biden "meandering" off, when a different camera angle showed he was speaking to someone out-of-frame. It’s not that the evidence is totally fabricated, but it’s being used to support a misleading narrative.