2024 African elections and the digital divide

Glen Mpani. Picture Supplied

Glen Mpani. Picture Supplied

Published Dec 24, 2023


By Glen Mpani

AFRICAN countries are witnessing a significant transformation in political campaigns, largely influenced by the advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Rallies and posters on streetpoles might very well be a thing of the past sooner rather than later as AI technology reshapes political campaigns and election management across the globe, including Africa.

AI in political campaigns is something of a double-edged sword. On one hand, it's super innovative and can change how campaigns are run, but on the other, not everyone has the same access to these technologies.

One does not need to be a rocket scientist to recognise that this technological evolution is taking place against the backdrop of a digital divide that is both stark and complex.

In response to this transformative trend and with expertise and insight into African political campaigns, IPE2024 has emerged to navigate the intricacies and challenges brought forth by AI in the context of African political campaigns.

The continent's diverse levels of internet access, digital literacy, and infrastructural development offer a unique mix of issues around the effective, responsible, and ethical use of AI in political processes.

The Digital Divide: A barrier to AI integration

In many African countries, opposition parties have historically faced challenges due to limited access to traditional media such as public TV and radio stations, and limited access to infrastructure such as telecommunications networks.

AI and big data can democratise access to information dissemination tools, enabling these parties to reach wider audiences without the need for extensive physical infrastructure or large financial investments.

While AI and digital campaigning can reach a broader audience, there remains a significant portion of the African population without reliable internet access. This digital divide means that AI-driven campaigns might still miss a substantial part of the electorate.

Across Africa, the digital disparity is evident. With only 28.2% of the continent's population having internet access, the scope for AI functionalities is restricted.

This situation risks turning AI into an extractive industry, where local resources are utilised for external benefits, often at the expense of local developers. The lack of reliable infrastructure and affordable data plans further complicates the landscape for AI entrepreneurs.

It is apparent that AI has the potential to significantly influence African political campaigns but its effective and ethical implementation depends on overcoming the challenges presented by the digital divide.

This includes not only enhancing internet access and digital literacy but also developing AI technologies that are relevant and accessible to local populations.

Privacy and data protection concerns:

Privacy issues in developing countries add another layer of complexity. The absence of robust legal mechanisms for data protection and transparency in data collection practices hampers trust in AI systems and underscores the need for stringent data protection policies that align with international norms.

Cultural and linguistic barriers:

The AI gap is further widened by the lack of locally relevant content and support for African languages. Many AI applications, predominantly developed in English and Chinese, fail to cater to the linguistic diversity of the continent, leading to further exclusion from AI benefits.

The challenge of digital literacy:

In the African context, where the youth demographic is a significant force, AI could transform political engagement and election processes. However, this requires careful consideration of ethical, privacy, and equity issues. Initiatives like IPE2024 are crucial in ensuring that the benefits of AI are harnessed effectively and ethically, contributing to a more informed, engaged, and equitable political landscape.

Enter IPE2024

The rapid integration of AI and big data into political strategies is reshaping the African political landscape, and IPE2024 serves as a timely platform to address these revolutionary changes.

The unique aspect of the IPE2024 event lies in its comprehensive inclusion of a wide array of stakeholders involved in political campaigning.

This event stands out for bringing together not only the direct participants in political campaigns, such as political parties and election management bodies, but also influential figures from related fields.

It encompasses academics and researchers, who provide insights into the political and technological aspects, as well as representatives from corporations that develop AI and big data tools.

By converging these diverse groups, IPE2024 sets a new precedent for the ethical and effective application of AI in African political campaigns.

This collaboration ensures that various perspectives are considered, from those who formulate and execute political strategies to those who create and critique the technological tools employed.

The involvement of a broad spectrum of stakeholders promises a more holistic approach to understanding and guiding the use of AI in political processes.

IPE2024 is the inaugural international political campaigns expo set to take place on 25 and 26 January 2024 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. To attend, register at www.internationalpolexpo.com and follow us on social media for updates.

Glen Mpani is the host and covenor of IPE2024