Paul Henderson—Senior Research Fellow at Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand

How AI is changing democracy | Nudging, microtargeting, and epistemic bubbles

By Dr Paul Henderson October 03, 2023

This is Maxim Institute’s second paper on artificial intelligence (AI). Our first, At the Cutting Edge: How Artificial Intelligence Will Change our Primary Sector Forever, considered the impact of AI on our agricultural sector. This discussion paper considers the impact that AI will have, and is having, on our democracy.

The paper begins with an overview of the uses and benefits that AI brings to most facets of our society. We then turn to the various threats to our democratic processes that the use of AI poses. Some of the phenomena discussed, such as “nudging” and the use of misleading text and pictures, are not new in our political processes, but the advent of AI has increased their reach and speed. Other threats, such as the psychographic profiling and microtargeting of voters, have been substantially strengthened by AI and have become go-to tools for influencing elections, policy outcomes and even individual decision-makers.

We then turn to the external threats that are strengthened by the increasing sophistication of AI. The paper outlines the ways that foreign governments are already attempting to influence elections and public opinion around the world. It also explores the threat of cybercrime by non-state actors as well as the ability of multinational corporations to use AI to shape the public discourse and the regulatory/policy debate.

Finally, we turn to an internal threat to our democracy: algorithmic government. The temptation may come to turn over more of our governmental decision-making to AI to improve policy responses, productivity and efficiency. Although well-intentioned, there is a real risk that we slide from democratic accountability into digital authoritarianism with little to no voter input.


How AI is changing democracy

Nudging, microtargeting, and epistemic bubbles


Having set out the opportunities and risks that AI poses our democracy and government, we finish the paper with three broad recommendations:

  • At the individual level. We all need to be aware of the impact of AI and improve our critical thinking skills. We should all analyse our online sources and broaden our horizons when it comes to consuming media so that we can break free of our epistemic bubbles and limit the effectiveness of nudging, microtargeting and disinformation.
  • At the national government level. The New Zealand Government should create a new business unit under the Department of Prime Minister of Cabinet: The AI Coordination Group. This Group would be responsible for strengthening protections around government-held data about New Zealanders, overseeing and guiding the use of AI by Government Ministries and leading the review of New Zealand’s existing legislative and regulatory framework.
  • At the international level. New Zealand should be part of the nascent international attempts to ensure that AI does not undermine our democratic systems. New Zealand should be arguing that democracy requires human accountability and that the normative centre of all public power is people, and not technology.

If these recommendations are followed then this will go a long way towards ameliorating the worst consequences of the widespread use of AI in our democracy and government. AI will feature heavily in our future campaign seasons. However, if we all know its effects and reach then we can protect our democratic systems from its undesirable effects.

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Paul Henderson—Senior Research Fellow at Maxim Institute in Auckland, New Zealand

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