AI, Social Media and Political Polarization:Is Our Democracy at Risk?

Fall 2019, Concord OLLI  2 days, 2 hrs each
Fridays Sept 27/Oct 4 3-5 PM
David Hess and Jim Isaak collaborators

Artificial Intelligence, Social Media and Political Polarization: Is Our Democracy at Risk?

            Social media and artificial intelligence (AI) are reshaping our political and electoral processes – and not for the better. Increasingly sophisticated algorithms searching through massive data sets enable political parties, candidates, and nation states to micro-target advertising with messages tailored to small, carefully selected segments of the population that are most susceptible to a particular message, thereby reinforcing the political dispositions of the recipients. Even more perniciously, this technology provides insights into how to tailor that message to most effectively influence those recipients. Online “bots” (automated accounts) can disseminate such messages – both real and indistinguishably fake ones – to millions of online recipients instantaneously – all known only to those who are receiving them. And these methodologies will become even more sophisticated and undetectable as AI advances to  “deep learning”. This technology is contributing to, if not to a significant extent causing, the further political polarization of our population as people increasingly receive only political messages tailored to and reinforcing their own political predispositions to the exclusion of other perspectives and points of view. We will ask: What are algorithms? Bots? Machine learning? Deep learning? How do they work? How do they shape, influence, manipulate, distort and polarize political discourse? And how have they been used historically to shape political thought and influence the outcome of elections as, for example: by ISIS in Iraq ; in the Brexit vote in England; and in our own 2016 presidential election (to mention but a few). And what does the future hold? 

Class 1:  Virtualpolitik
  • How to accumulate a profile on every individual
    • Algorithms, tracking beacons, advertising incentives
  • What can be obtained directly, indirectly and via AI inference
    • Machine & Deep Learning
  • Selecting targeted voters
    <where do we care, who votes, likely vote, action
    objective, personality adaptation>
  • Payload creation, delivery, testing, adaptation via all channels (web search, news feeds, social media, TV ad insertion, etc.)
    • Trolls, bots, sock puppets, fake news, deep fakes -- the roles of outrage, fear and viral pandemics
      "Bots are [applications] that run on their own and can be used for many different purposes, good or bad. Trolls are people who purposefully seed discord and may use harassment and bullying techniques. Sock puppets are fake accounts established to manipulate online discussions, often posing as sympathetic to the creator’s target." (From Bot-Nets are a large number of systems (sometimes hijacked from their owners) that are instructed ("zombies") to take specific action -- including influencing "trending" news, or other informal measurements.
Class: 2: Realpolitik


The "Companies"
Democracy at Risk
Data for Democracy - volunteering to address the digital challenges
Alliance for securing democracy - under the German Marshall Fund for the U.S.
Common Sense Media - nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of kids and families--providing the trustworthy information, education, and independent voice 
SocialScienceOne Initiative - Universities, Facebook, etc. "focuses on the effect of social media on democracy and elections,"