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EU regulations will be put to the test as Europeans fear tech’s impact on democracy

Europeans are worried about tech's impact on democracy
Europeans are worried about tech's impact on democracy Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Luke Hurst
Published on Updated
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Democracy activists say the EU’s Digital Services Act faces its first real ‘road test’ amid worries about tech’s impact on democracy.

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A majority of people in European countries are concerned about the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) and deepfake technology on democracy, a new poll shows.

Amongst those who have some understanding of deepfake and AI tools in Germany and the UK, 70 per cent said they had worries about the technology potentially undermining elections.

The survey, conducted by YouGov and commissioned by the foundation Luminate, also showed that 57 per cent of respondents in France shared this view.

Deepfake videos have already been published amid an election in Turkey and the Republican presidential primary race in the US.

In Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan won a narrow re-election in May, a video of his main challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu appeared showing him speaking in perfect English. It was later confirmed by a Turkish fact-checking website that the video was fabricated, with experts warning that while a lot of deepfake footage is easily identified, it may not be for voters who no longer think critically about what they see online.

In the US meanwhile, former President Donald Trump was the target of a deepfake video, put out by the campaign for his rival for the Republican candidacy, Ron DeSantis. The video contained AI-generated images of Trump hugging and kissing Dr Anthony Fauci, an expert who led the COVID-19 response in the US and who is a frequent target of conspiracy theorists.

The poll also revealed how citizens of these three European countries are viewing social media companies as harmful to democracy too, with 54 per cent in the UK, 44 per cent in France, and 33 per cent in Germany holding these views. Just 10 per cent, 14 per cent and 18 per cent respectively see social media as positive for democracy.

With many elections coming up in the EU and across the world over the next year, Luminate’s Director of Campaigns & Media, Alaphia Zoyab, warns platforms that “arrived with the promise of being democratising forces” are now actually “dangerously harmful to our societies and our democracy”. 

‘The scales are falling from people’s eyes’

She tells Euronews Next that so many hold the view that tech has become bad for democracy because “the steady drumbeat of the real world evidence of the last ten years is now sort of undeniable”, pointing to the “spread of horrific hate speech in places like Myanmar, India, Ethiopia”.

There were also the failed attempts to violently overturn elections, in the US on January 6 2021, and Brazil on January 8 of this year, she points out.

“I think this is the story of the arc of the technology platforms, and the scales are really falling from people's eyes,” she adds.

Between now and the end of 2024 there will be around 65 major elections, with more than a quarter of the global population living in a country facing an election, including in India, Indonesia, Mexico, South Korea, Taiwan, the UK, the US and Europe.

Zoyab insists legislation like the EU’s Digital Services Act is going to be “critical” in reigning in tech companies, who she says have no incentive to make changes to protect democracy on their own.

“Their business models are designed to generate profits from exploiting our data and amplifying any content that keeps us hooked. And if that's misinformation and disinformation or hate speech, then so be it.”

With the Digital Services Act, which recently came into force, the EU is attempting to protect citizens and their rights online, and increase transparency and accountability for online platforms. Zoyab concludes that it faces its “first real road test” with the upcoming elections in Europe and beyond.

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