(1) The Meh Election - Anchor Change with Katie Harbath

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May 12, 2024 01:09 PM
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In the next three to four weeks, we have major elections in South Africa, India, Mexico, and the EU. We are six months from Election Day in the U.S. There’s been all this hype about disinformation and AI. This seems like the time when things should be picking up.
Why, then, does it feel quiet?
I think this is for a few reasons.
  1. Clear winners. Ask any election official; the ideal election is one with unequivocal and clear results. The polls overwhelmingly show Modi will win in India and Claudia Sheinbaum in Mexico. This generally means campaigns and other orgs won’t be pushing the boundaries as much to try to move the needle.
  1. People aren’t excited by Trump or Biden. In the U.S., the primaries ended incredibly quickly, and so attention on the election has waned as there isn’t much campaign activity happening. This is especially true when other things in the news, like Trump’s trial and protests on campuses, are pulling attention.
  1. People are burnt out. We’ve been through a lot in the last eight years—especially the last four—and we’re in for even more twists and turns. This has caused people to follow the news less, leading platforms like those owned by Meta to pull back from news and politics.
  1. People are more resilient. As a society we know more about the types of tactics people might be doing to influence the information environment so they are more quickly to point it out and/or debunk it.
  1. Organizations and funders are sitting out. It's rough out there if you are a non-profit looking for funding. Many orgs and funders don’t want to be sucked into our highly divisive politics and are choosing to sit out. Nicholas Thompson of the Atlantic said in a recent interview that they are planning for a dip in advertising money from September to November because advertisers have told them they don’t want their ads next to any political content.
  1. People and companies are doing their jobs. Sometimes, the quiet is a sign that the mitigation factors election officials, companies, regulators, and other organizations have been building for years are working. People are watching for AI-generated content like hawks. Far more people are monitoring disinformation campaigns and making it harder and more expensive for adversaries to run them.
  1. Waiting on the Courts. A couple of big open questions are sitting in front of the Supreme Court that will impact how tech companies moderate content and engage with the government. You also have the TikTok ban that will work its way through the courts this year. This uncertainty is causing some to wait until those rulings come down.
  1. Quiet in the short term doesn’t mean there aren’t long-term issues. In today’s age of breaking news every second, we are wired to get spun up on specific cases and incidents more than keeping attention on those playing the long game to disrupt the information ecosystem. So, while it might be quiet now, it doesn’t mean activity isn’t going on that needs to be mitigated, countered, and monitored. For instance, there are reports of Modi and the BJP continuing to post anti-Muslim content on platforms.
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I also don’t think it will stay quiet. After all, in 2016, it wasn’t until May 9th that you had the Philippines election and the trending topics controversy about Meta being accused of suppressing conservative content break. It was June when the world was shocked by Brexit.
So, there’s time.
However, there’s a nagging feeling I’ve started to have that despite my years-long warning about this historic year of elections, what happens the five years after them will be more consequential.
Here is why.
  1. If Biden wins and there isn’t a huge disruption online, I worry that people will think the threats of disinformation and the internet to democracy are no longer that large. Funding will dry up, teams will be laid off, and priorities will be re-adjusted. This will leave us vulnerable for future elections.
  1. If Trump wins, we’ll see some funding to counter his messages, but I think the real question is whether Republicans can control either branch of Congress and continue with Jim Jordan-esque hearings. This will continue the chilling effect of everyone wanting to sit things out.
  1. AI will play a small role overall in this election but an even bigger one in 2026 and the 2028 presidential race as more people get used to using the tools.
  1. 2028 will be a wide-open race on both the Democratic and Republican sides. This will make for a much more eventful and busy primary season. Every campaign will be trying to find ways to gain an edge.
  1. 2029 is another huge year of global elections—it happens every five years. This will be coming off of a U.S. election, where you will once again see American political consultants in high demand globally to teach campaigns the new tactics they pioneered in 2028—especially with AI. Some of these tactics could be quite shady.
  1. As futurist Amy Webb calls it, we are in a super cycle where AI, wearables, and biotech are changing rapidly. Our information environment for the next election will look very different than the one we have today, and we will have to adapt to new harms that will emerge.
  1. China might invade Taiwan. Dmitri Alperovitch is out with a new book, "World on the Brink: How America Can Beat China in the Race for the 21st Century,” where he details a scenario where China invades Taiwan on November 13, 2028. He picks that time because the U.S. election will be done, but will have a lame-duck president and it’s after Xi will be re-elected in 2027. This fits a warning I read recently in the book “Fourth Turning is Here” by Neil Howe. Howe looks at the cycles of history and how we are yet again in a cycle where the last ones included the American Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II. He discusses how we are due for some sort of event such as these and how the timing matches Alperovitch’s prediction. I won’t go into it, but let me just say astrologers also predict a lot of upheaval during these times.
Thinking about this has me feeling conflicted. On one hand this future sounds fascinating and terrifying. I also take solace in that we have made it out of difficult times like this in the past. Historical cycles can be comforting in that way even if it’s challenging to not know how things will unfold.
This will bring a lot of opportunity and change. Those who do the best will be those who know how to be flexible and pivot rapidly while also keeping the long-term horizon in sight.
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