Analysis: In the age of AI, keep calm and vote on

This article is part of a series, Bots and ballots: How artificial intelligence is reshaping elections worldwide, presented by Luminate.

When I started this series on artificial intelligence, disinformation and global elections, I had a pretty clear picture in mind.

It came down to this: While AI had garnered people’s imagination — and the likes of deepfakes and other AI-generated falsehoods were starting to bubble to the surface — the technology did not yet represent a step change in how politically motivated lies, often spread via social media, would alter the mega-election cycle engulfing the world in 2024.

Now, after nine stories and reporting trips from Chișinău to Seattle, I haven’t seen anything that would alter that initial view. But things, as always, are more complicated — and more volatile — than I first believed.

What’s clear, based on more than 100  interviews with policymakers, government officials, tech executives and civil society groups, is that the technology — specifically, generative AI — is getting more advanced by the day.

During the course of my reporting, I was shown deepfake videos, purportedly portraying global leaders like U.S. President Joe Biden and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron, that were indistinguishable from the real thing. They included politicians allegedly speaking in multiple languages and saying things that, if true, would have ended their careers.

They were so lifelike that it would take a lot to convince anyone without deep technical expertise that an algorithm had created them.

Despite being a tech reporter, I’m not a fanboy of technology. But the speed of AI advancements, and their ease of use by those with little, if any, computer science background, should give us all pause for concern.

The second key theme that surprised me from this series was how much oversight had been outsourced to companies — many of which were the same firms that created the AI systems that could be used for harm.

More than 25 tech giants have now signed up to the so-called AI Election Accords, voluntary commitments from companies including Microsoft, ByteDance and Alphabet to do what they can to protect global elections from the threat posed by AI.

Given the track record of many of these firms in protecting users from existing harms, including harassment and bullying on social media, it’s a massive leap of faith to rely on them to safeguard election integrity.

That’s despite the legitimate goodwill I perceived from multiple interviews with corporate executives within these firms to reduce politically motivated harm as much as possible.

The problem, as of mid-2024, is that governments, regulators and other branches of the state are just not prepared for the potential threat — and it does remain potential — tied to AI.

Much of the technical expertise resides deep within companies. Legislative efforts, including the European Union’s recently passed Artificial Intelligence Act, are, at best, works in progress. The near total lack of oversight of how social media platforms’ AI-powered algorithms operate makes it impossible to rely on anyone other than tech giants themselves to police how these systems determine what people see online.

With AI advancing faster than you can say “large language model” and governments struggling to keep up, why am I still cautious about heralding this as the year of AI-fueled disinformation, just as billions of people head to the polls in 2024?

For now, I have a potentially naive belief that people are smarter than many of us think they are.

As easy as it is to think that one well-placed AI deepfake on social media may change the minds of unsuspecting voters, that’s not how people make their political choices. Entrenched views on specific lawmakers or parties make it difficult to shift people’s opinions. The fact that AI-fueled forgeries must be viewed in a wider context — alongside other social media posts, discussions with family members and interactions with legacy media — also hamstring the ability for such lies to break through.

Where I believe we’re heading, though, is a “post-post-truth” era, where people will think everything, and I mean everything, is made up, especially online. Think “fake news,” but turned up to 11, where not even the most seemingly authentic content can be presumed to be 100 percent true.

We’re already seeing examples of politicians claiming that damaging social media posts are deepfakes when, in fact, they are legitimate. With the hysteria around AI often outpacing what the technology can currently do — despite daily advances — there’s now a widespread willingness to believe all content can be created via AI, even when it can’t. 

In such a world, it’s only rational to not have faith in anything.

The positive is that we’re not there yet. If the nine articles in this “Bots and Ballots” series show anything, it’s that, yes, AI-fueled disinformation is upon us. But no, it’s not an existential threat, and it must be viewed as part of a wider world of ‘old-school’ campaigning and, in some cases, foreign interference and cyberattacks. AI is an agnostic tool, to be wielded for good or ill.

Will that change in the years to come? Potentially. But for this year’s election cycle, your best bet is to remain vigilant, without getting caught up in the hype-train that artificial intelligence has become.

Mark Scott is POLITICO’s chief technology correspondent. He writes a weekly newsletter, Digital Bridge, about the global intersection of technology and politics. 

This article is part of a series, Bots and ballots: How artificial intelligence is reshaping elections worldwide, presented by Luminate. The article is produced with full editorial independence by POLITICO reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by outside advertisers.



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Kosovo attack: Who benefits?

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

The European Union and the United States have been trying to persuade Serbia and Kosovo to end their enmity and normalize relations for more than a decade.

There were finally signs of promise in April, when Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić and Kosovo’s Prime Minister Albin Kurti finally gave tacit, if begrudging, approval to an EU-brokered plan that would see the two finally sprinkle some soil over the hatchet.

But despite all the cajoling and coaxing, it wasn’t to be.

U.S. and European officials have insinuated that Kurti was more to blame here, with EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell drawing attention to the failure to establish an association of municipalities in northern Kosovo, which would have allowed Kosovo’s Serbs some autonomy in an enclave where they’re a majority.

Behind the scenes, U.S. and European officials have also quietly praised Vučić for a slow and halting tilt toward the West, secretly supplying some arms to Ukraine and moving to reduce Serbia’s dependency on Russian energy supplies.

This is why last week’s astonishing clash between armed Serbs and police in the village of Banjska, in northern Kosovo’s Zvečan municipality, is especially perplexing — and it’s worth asking whose interests it serves.

Kosovo’s leaders quickly blamed Vučić for the attack, which also involved a siege of an Orthodox monastery. A Kosovan policeman and three Serb gunmen were killed in the clash. And Kosovo’s President Vjosa Osmani said Friday that “the (armed) group simply exercised the intentions and the motives of Serbia as a country and Vučić as the leader.”

Osmani maintains Belgrade was trying to copy Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, which began with so-called little green men infiltrating the Ukrainian peninsula. “They are trying to carry out a Crimea model in the Republic of Kosovo, but we will absolutely not let that happen,” she added.

Kurti has called for sanctions to be imposed on Serbia for what he describes as a state-sponsored terrorist attack, warning that if the crime goes unpunished, Belgrade will repeat it. Vučić planned and ordered an attack in northern Kosovo “to destabilize” the country with the goal of starting a war, he said.

In response, Vučić has angrily denied these allegations but has noticeably hardened his rhetoric, possibly as a sop to Serbian ultra-nationalists. More alarmingly, however, Serbia has been building up its forces near the border with Kosovo since the deadly clashes, which the White House has described as “unprecedented.” And according to U.S. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby, on a phone call with Vučić, Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged an “immediate de-escalation and a return to dialogue.”

If Belgrade did have a hand in the attack, however, it would appear to pull against the caution Vučić has displayed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, hedging his bets between the West and Serbia’s traditional Slavic ally. Vučić didn’t join in on Western sanctions against Russia but has condemned the invasion, and says he’s keen to pursue Serbia’s bid for EU membership.

If Belgrade did have a hand in the attack, it would appear to pull against the caution Aleksandar Vučić has displayed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine | Andrej Cukic/EFE via EPA

Marko Đurić, the Serbian ambassador to the U.S., echoes Vučić’s argument that planning or approving an attack in Kosovo at this juncture would make no sense and potentially ruin Belgrade’s improving relations with the West. “We have a lot to lose by any kind of escalation in Kosovo,” he told POLITICO — including harming the country commercially.

Đurić also said the attack has complicated the country’s domestic politics, noting that “the far right in Serbia is going to try and exploit this to the greatest extent possible.”

But Kosovo’s leaders have a case against Belgrade that needs answering.

To support the allegation that Vučić endorsed the attack, they highlight the role of Milan Radoičić, the deputy leader of the Serb List — a party that dominates Serb politics in northern Kosovo and has close links with Vučić’s Serbian Progressive Party.

Nicknamed the “boss of the north,” Radoičić admitted to organizing and leading the attack in a statement issued by his lawyer, saying he was solely responsible. “I didn’t inform anyone from the government structures of the Republic of Serbia about this, nor from the local political structures from the north of Kosovo and Metohija, nor did I get any help from them, because we already had had different views on the previous methods of resisting Kurti’s terror,” he said.

But Kurti dismisses the idea that Radoičić would have gone ahead without Vučić’s approval. “I have no doubt that Radiočić was only the executor. The one who planned and ordered this terrorist, criminal attack on our state, in order to violate our territorial integrity, national safety and state security, is none other than President Vučić,” he told reporters.

Other officials in Pristina also say it would be stretching credulity to think Aleksandar Vulin, the head of Serbia’s BIA intelligence agency, would have been unaware of a planned attack.

Bojan Pajtić, a Serbian law professor and former president of the autonomous province of Vojvodina within Serbia, agrees the Banjska provocation wouldn’t have gone ahead without the security agency’s knowledge, saying it is improbable that the BIA would have failed to notice an operation being prepared by a heavily armed formation consisting of dozens of people in such a small area. “The BIA normally knows who drank coffee with whom yesterday in Zvečan,” he said.

“When an incident occurs that is not accidental, but the result of someone’s efforts, you always wonder whose interests it is in,” Paltić said. “In this case, it is certainly not in the interest of Aleksandar Vučić, because after the last attempt at dialogue in Brussels, in the eyes of the West, in relation to Kurti, he still looked like a constructive partner.”

Pajtić isn’t alone in querying who’s interest the attack was in, and so far, both Washington and Brussels have been extremely cautious in their comments. European Commission spokesperson Peter Stano said the EU will wait for the completion of the investigation before coming to any conclusions on what he described as a terrorist attack. Washington, careful to keep its language neutral, hasn’t been specific about who it blames either.

This, of course, stands in sharp contrast to Moscow, which predictably grandstanded as Serbia’s traditional protector, accusing Pristina of ethnic cleansing in northern Kosovo — the very same lie used to try to justify Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

“This incident, the most serious example of violence in Kosovo for years, turned the tables on Vučić,” said Dimitar Bechev, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. And he, too, questioned whether the attack was a rogue operation by Serbian ultra-nationalists and Kosovo’s Serb leaders.

“Should the story of Radoičić freelancing be corroborated, it would appear that Vučić has lost control over his erstwhile proxies,” he said.



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Armenians find themselves pushed aside yet again

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe. 

Last week, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that the world is “inching ever closer to a great fracture in economic and financial systems and trade relations.”

That may be so, but not when it comes to Azerbaijan.

A country a third of the size of Britain and with a population of about 10 million, Azerbaijan has faced few problems in bridging geopolitical divisions. And recently, Baku has been offering a masterclass in how to exploit geography and geology to considerable advantage.

From Washington to Brussels, Moscow to Beijing, seemingly no one wants to fall out with Azerbaijan; everyone wants to be a friend. Even now, as Armenia has turned to the world for help, accusing Baku of attempted ethnic cleansing in disputed Nagorno-Karabakh — the land-locked and long-contested Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan.

Warning signs had been mounting in recent weeks that Baku might be planning a major offensive, which it dubbed an “anti-terrorist operation,” and Armenia had been sending up distress flares. But not only were these largely overlooked, Baku has since faced muted criticism for its assault as well.

Western reaction could change, though, if Azerbaijan were to now engage in mass ethnic cleansing — but Baku is canny enough to know that.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Azerbaijan has been courted by all sides, becoming one of the war’s beneficiaries.

On a visit to Baku last year, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had only warm words for the country’s autocratic leader Ilham Aliyev, saying she saw him as a reliable and trustworthy energy partner for the European Union.

Then, just a few weeks later, Alexander Lukashenko — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s satrap in Belarus — had no hesitation in describing Aliyev as “absolutely our man.”

Is there any other national leader who can be a pal of von der Leyen and Lukashenko at the same time?

Aliyev is also a friend of Turkey; Baku and Beijing count each other as strategic partners, with Azerbaijan participating in China’s Belt and Road Initiative; and the country has been working on expanding military cooperation with Israel as well. In 2020 — during the last big flare-up in this intractable conflict — Israel had supplied Azerbaijan with drones, alongside Turkey.

That’s an impressive list of mutually exclusive friends and suitors — and location and energy explain much.

Upon her arrival in Azerbaijan’s capital last year, von der Leyen wasn’t shy about highlighting Europe’s need to “diversify away from Russia” for its energy needs, announcing a deal with Baku to increase supplies from the southern gas corridor — the 3,500-kilometer pipeline bringing gas from the Caspian Sea to Europe.

She also noted that Azerbaijan “has a tremendous potential in renewable energy” in offshore wind and green hydrogen, enthusing that “gradually, Azerbaijan will evolve from being a fossil fuel supplier to becoming a very reliable and prominent renewable energy partner to the European Union.”

There was no mention of Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record, rampant corruption or any call for the scores of political prisoners to be released.

Azerbaijan uses oil and gas “to silence the EU on fundamental rights issues,” Philippe Dam of Human Rights Watch complained at the time. “The EU should not say a country is reliable when it is restricting the activities of civil society groups and crushing political dissent,” he added.

Eve Geddie, director of Amnesty International’s Brussels office, warned: “Ukraine serves as a reminder that repressive and unaccountable regimes are rarely reliable partners and that privileging short-term objectives at the expense of human rights is a recipe for disaster.”

But von der Leyen isn’t the first top EU official to speak of Azerbaijan as such a partner. In 2019, then EU Council President Donald Tusk also praised Azerbaijan for its reliability.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, however, the EU’s courting has become even more determined — and, of course, the bloc isn’t alone. Rich in oil and gas and located between Russia, Iran, Armenia, Georgia and the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan is a strategic prize, sitting “on the crossroads of former major empires, civilizations and regional and global powerhouses,” according to Fariz Ismailzade of ADA University in Baku.

And Azerbaijan’s growing importance in the latest great game in Central Asia is reflected in the increase in foreign diplomatic missions located in its capital — in 2005 there were just two dozen, now there are 85.

For Ankara, and Beijing — eager to expand their influence across Central Asia — Azerbaijan is a key player in regional energy projects, as well as the development of new regional railways and planned infrastructure and connectivity projects.

Thanks to strong linguistic, religious and cultural ties, Turkey has been Azerbaijan’s main regional ally since it gained independence. But Baku has been adept at making sure it keeps in with all its suitors. It realizes they all offer opportunities but could also be dangerous, should relations take a dive.

And this holds for all the key players in the region, whether it be the EU, Turkey, China or Russia. The reason Baku can get on with a highly diverse set of nations — and why there likely won’t be many serious repercussions for Baku with this latest military foray — is that no one wants to give geopolitical rivals an edge and upset the fragile equilibrium in Central Asia. That includes its traditional foe Iran – Baku and Tehran have in recent months been trying to build a détente after years of hostility.

For the Armenians, so often finding themselves wronged by history, this is highly unfortunate. They might have been better advised to follow Azerbaijan’s example and try to be everyone’s friend, instead of initially depending on Russia, then pivoting West — a pirouette that’s lost them any sympathy in Moscow.

But then again, Armenia hasn’t been blessed with proven reserves of oil or natural gas like its neighbor.



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West must move faster to prevent a catastrophe in northern Syria

Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

On the “treacherous night” of the deadly earthquake that shook northern Syria, Idris Nassan, a Kurdish official living in Raqqa, was startled awake as his apartment swayed.

“My body was trembling, noise filled the place; the building turned into a swing, leaning left and right,” he said.

With his wife and mother in tow, Nassan scrambled down three flights of stairs, joining neighbors who, “like birds fleeing snakes of prey,” made their chaotic exit. The stairwell echoed with the cries and screams of terrified children.

The scenes outside were “beyond endurance,” Nassan said — telling, coming from a man who witnessed the siege of Kobani and the vicious battles between Kurds and the Islamic State militants there. But, he added, the “pain of the earthquake has been “deepened by the failure of others to help.”

Of all the places to be tested by the grinding of tectonic plates, this is one that just didn’t need to suffer more pain and grief.

The Syrians of Idlib and northern Aleppo, many displaced from elsewhere in the war-ravaged country, have endured barbaric conflict, a gruesome descent into hell, for over a decade. They’ve suffered barrel bombs; their hospitals and markets have been targeted; they’ve been starved; and they’ve been preyed upon by the jihadists of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. Idlib was turned into a large “kill zone” by the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers, as rebels and their families were funneled into the area, corralled like cattle awaiting slaughter.

Adding insult to injury, since 2018, Turkish authorities have been deterring Syrian asylum seekers from crossing the border and declining to register them. Turkey has also mounted unlawful deportations and coerced some to return to northern Syria, while the European Union — fearful of another migration surge — has raised few objections to this breach of the Geneva Convention.

Along the arc of northern Syria, the widespread complaint by Arabs and Kurds alike is that since the defeat of the Islamic State, they’ve been abandoned by the international community. That sense of desertion is now being compounded as they dig mass graves and grapple with the effects of a devastating earthquake.

Since the deadly 7.8-magnitude earthquake flattened towns, destroyed homes and crushed thousands of lives on February 6, the world’s focus has mainly been on Turkey — that’s where Western media and international rescue crews, aid and equipment have been heading.

But across the border, there’s been scant assistance.

Sent into rebel-held Idlib, a member of Mercy Corps, a global humanitarian organization, said, “What sticks in my mind is that some people were standing above the rubble and hearing the voices of their families and relatives a few meters away, but they could not do anything to rescue them due to the lack of equipment and the absence of an international response to help.”

Predictably, Moscow and Beijing haven’t been lagging in their efforts to try to spin the events in Syria. “The sanctions imposed by the US and its allies are hampering relief and rescue work . . . such a humanitarian disaster is not enough to melt the cold-blooded heart of the US,” goaded the Global Times, the English-language mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova accused the “collective West” of ignoring what’s taking place in northern Syria, blaming the economic sanctions against the Assad government for prolonging suffering.

Of course, these are crocodile tears coming from a Chinese Communist government that’s incarcerated over a million Uyghurs since 2015. It’s also strikingly indecent of Russia to claim sympathy for the north of Syria, where it shunned the laws of war and rehearsed the bombing campaigns and egregious tactics it’s now using in Ukraine.

Nonetheless, one doesn’t have to be a Russian or Chinese propagandist to question the West’s sluggishness in anticipating the scale of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in northern Syria, or in developing an action plan to ease the suffering in Idlib and northern Aleppo.

Last week, EU officials slammed the complaints of neglect coming from northern Syria. “I categorically reject the accusations that EU sanctions may have any impact on humanitarian aid. These sanctions were imposed since 2011 in response to the violent repression of the Syrian regime against its own civilian population, including the use of chemical weapons,” European Commissioner for Crisis Management Janez Lenarčič told reporters. “There is nothing there that would hamper the delivery of humanitarian aid and emergency assistance, especially not in the situation in which Syrian people find themselves after this terrible earthquake,” he added.

The EU says it’ll provide additional emergency support to both Turkey and Syria, and emergency humanitarian assistance worth €6.5 million. But officials say the bloc will also require safeguards to ensure aid effectively reaches those in need and isn’t misused by the Assad government — something that’s plagued humanitarian assistance in the past.

Indeed, funneling aid into northern Syria is fraught with logistical and political nightmares. Idlib is controlled by a variety of feuding rebel groups, with a large part held by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an Islamist militant group that’s been designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and, much like the Assad government, has been accused of manipulating international aid.

Additionally, of the five border crossings from Turkey into northern Syria, only one has been authorized by Turkish authorities to handle humanitarian aid — although Ankara has now said it’s considering reopening more crossings to allow aid into both opposition-held and Assad-controlled areas.

But time is of the essence, and the scale of the crisis unfolding requires a momentous step change.

Mercy Corps reports that there aren’t enough structural engineers in northern Syria to inspect buildings, and even small aftershocks risk further collapse. There’s also very little coordination on the ground, with extremely limited information available on shelter options for survivors.

Fuel for heating and cooking is becoming a major challenge as well. “There is limited availability, and what is available is of poor quality and very expensive. People are burning trash to stay warm, and aid deliveries will be dependent on consistent access to fuel for trucks,” said Mercy Corps. Meanwhile, food is hard to procure, prices are skyrocketing, and access to clean drinking water is becoming a critical problem, with assessment teams worried about pollutants leaking into water sources.

On Friday, the United Nations warned that over 5 million Syrians may be left homeless after the earthquake. “That is a huge number and comes to a population already suffering mass displacement,” said Sivanka Dhanapala, the Syria representative of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Thankfully, in the past few days, 20 U.N. aid trucks have crossed into rebel-held areas, but most were carrying pre-planned provisions that had been delayed due to the earthquake. And on Friday, the U.N. announced it was releasing an additional $25 million in emergency funding for Syria, bringing the total to $50 million so far.

However, NGO assessment workers say this is far short of what’s needed — and they argue that Western powers will have to rethink the sanctions regime.

While humanitarian aid isn’t barred by Western sanctions, there are plenty of other things desperately needed in northern Syria that are, including fuel and construction equipment critical to rescue efforts, to prop up battered buildings and to rebuild, so the displaced aren’t left to shelter in tents.

The United States has moved faster than the EU in recognizing that sanctions risk impeding quake assistance, issuing a six-month waiver for all transactions related to providing disaster relief to Syria.

 Navigating the political dilemmas all this will bring — getting in front of Assad exploiting the earthquake to force a normalization of relations, getting Turkey to coordinate with the Kurds of northern Syria, and dealing with HTS and the other feuding rebel groups — is undoubtedly going to be a tall order.

Aside from the imperatives of compassion, a slow and inadequate Western response will also feed into African and Middle Eastern countries’ perception — kindled by Moscow and Beijing — that Western powers only pay attention to them when they want or need something.

And if these challenges aren’t confronted, the immediate humanitarian crisis risks turning into a catastrophe.



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