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Civic Nebraska hosts AI and democracy summit at UNL ahead of legislative hearing

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Civic Nebraska hosts AI and democracy summit at UNL ahead of legislative hearing

Feb 26, 2024 | 6:45 am ET
By Zach Wendling
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Civic Nebraska hosts AI and democracy summit at UNL ahead of legislative hearing
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Civic Nebraska hosts a community forum at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln related to artificial intelligence and its possible effects on democracy, including the 2024 elections. Feb. 24, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

LINCOLN — Just days before lawmakers consider the possible impacts of artificial intelligence on Nebraska’s upcoming elections, at least one state senator says the conversations are just beginning.

Civic Nebraska hosts AI and democracy summit at UNL ahead of legislative hearing
State Sen. Tom Brewer, left, meets with panelists and moderator Heidi Uhing, of Civic Nebraska, center, following a community forum on AI and democracy. Feb. 24, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

State Sen. Tom Brewer, who represents north-central Nebraska, joined Civic Nebraska’s community forum Saturday on AI and democracy, stating bluntly that “AI is scary” and that multiple University of Nebraska professors, who detailed possible impacts of the technology, “scared the hell out of me.”

“They’re talking about things that if you stop, pause and think about, how do you stop it?” Brewer told a group of about three dozen people at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

‘First shot over the bow’

Heidi Uhing, director of public policy for Civic Nebraska, moderated the event. She pointed to January robocalls using President Joe Biden’s voice to trick voters ahead of the New Hampshire primary. In 5,000 AI-generated calls, people were discouraged from voting.

“That was sort of the first shot over the bow when it comes to artificial intelligence used in our elections,” Uhing said.

Civic Nebraska hosts AI and democracy summit at UNL ahead of legislative hearing
State Sen. Tom Brewer, center. Feb. 24, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Brewer, a two-time Purple Heart recipient who chairs the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee, suggested lawmakers come together to learn more about AI after the 2024 session and after the May primary election to examine whether there are any issues.

He suggested that the Government and Judiciary Committees should investigate AI, possibly providing momentum to propel 2025 legislation “up the food chain.”

“We need smart folks all along the way to make sure as we build it, as we write it, that end product is good to go,” Brewer said. 

Brewer said there is a chance — but a “remote” one — that AI-related legislation could become law in 2024, since none of the bills has been prioritized. 

‘Imminent’ terroristic threats

Gina Ligon, director of the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s National Counterterrorism Innovation, Technology and Education Center, said Saturday that NCITE has started to examine how terrorist or non-state actors might be using AI.

Previous thinking was terrorists needed “specific expertise” for attacks, but AI is closing the gap.

Ligon said terrorists are using AI to find information, and in just the last week shared manuals of how to use it on the “dark web” among terrorist organizations. 

Civic Nebraska hosts AI and democracy summit at UNL ahead of legislative hearing
Gina Ligon, director of the National Counterterrorism, Innovation, Technology, and Education Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, presents research on how terrorist groups have begun to use artificial intelligence. Feb. 24, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

U.S. election hardware and systems are methodical and more protected than elsewhere in the world, Ligon said, but she cautioned that election officials and workers are not protected.

“If you get enough of these threats, enough of these videos made about you, you’re maybe not going to volunteer to be an election official anymore,” Ligon said. 

“That’s what keeps me up at night is how we can protect election officials here in Nebraska from what I think is an imminent concern of how terrorists are going to use this technology,” Ligon continued.

NCITE has also been looking at threats to public officials, including those in elections, with a record number in 2023, double from when the center started investigating a decade ago. However, Ligon said, that’s just the “tip of the iceberg” through federal charges focused on violence.

Elections about ‘national security’

Ligon said Nebraska lacks specific language related to election worker harassment, which could degrade and erode election workers’ ability to come to work and to protect elections. She said she would like to see enhanced penalties should someone attempt to harass an election official.

“Local threats to local officials, to me, is national security,” Ligon said.

Nebraska election officials in 2022 said their jobs were more stressful and under the spotlight.

Civic Nebraska hosts AI and democracy summit at UNL ahead of legislative hearing
Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian Kruse. Feb. 24, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Douglas County Election Commissioner Brian Kruse said Saturday his biggest concern is bad actors attempting to use AI to sow misinformation or disinformation about elections, such as changes to voting deadlines or polling places.

“The only thing that has changed is we now have voter ID in Nebraska,” Kruse said. 

It’s always good to have the conversation about election safety, Kruse said, because he and his office try to be proactive. He added that in daily journals he reads, not a day goes by without an AI-related article.

Legislative Bill 1390, from Lincoln State Sen. Eliot Bostar and endorsed by Civic Nebraska, would prohibit deep fakes, or deceptive images or videos, of election officers. It also would crack down on threats and harassment of election officials or election workers and requires an annual report. It will be considered at a Government Committee hearing Wednesday.

LB 1203, by State Sen. John Cavanaugh of Omaha, will also be considered Wednesday. It would have the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission regulate AI in media or political advertisements.

Unwinnable ‘arms race’

Civic Nebraska hosts AI and democracy summit at UNL ahead of legislative hearing
Matt Waite, a professor in UNL’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications. Feb. 24, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

UNL Professor Matt Waite, who taught a fall 2023 course on AI and journalism, said it might be impossible to “escape the damage” that AI could cause and said the field is changing so fast his course was like flying a plane “with duct tape and prayer.”

“I get six different AI newsletters a day, and I’m not even sure I’m keeping up with it,” Waite said.

In one example, Waite described creating an AI-generated clip of UNL radio professor Rick Alloway for his class. He and students asked dozens of people to listen to two audio clips of the same script and decide which was AI-generated and which was read by Alloway.

About 65% of those responding to the poll had heard Alloway before or had taken one of his classes. More than half, 55%, thought the AI-generated clip was actually the professor’s voice.

“The AI inserted breath pauses — you can hear the AI breathing,” Waite said. “It also went ‘um’ and ‘ah’ twice.”

The Nebraska Examiner published the findings of a similar experiment with seven state lawmakers last month. Senators similarly expressed concern or hesitation with where to begin to address AI issues.

Waite said lawmakers “are in an arms race that you cannot possibly win” and have tried to legislate technology before but have often run aground on First Amendment or other concerns. 

“It’s not the AI that’s the problem,” Waite said. “It’s the disruption of a fair and equitable election.”

A need for trust

Civic Nebraska hosts AI and democracy summit at UNL ahead of legislative hearing
Bryan Wang, a professor in UNL’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications. Feb. 24, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

Professor Bryan Wang, who teaches public relations at UNL and studies political advertising, explained that social media has created echo chambers and niche connections, which complicates AI use.

AI is already changing the production, dissemination and reception of information, Wang said, such as users in a “high choice environment” — where they may choose to avoid political information — incidentally being exposed and sharing information within their bubble.

That process isn’t random, Wang continued, as social media works off algorithms that feed off people’s distrust, which extends to all sectors of life.

“We also need to work on restoring that trust to build more empathy among us, to build more data and understanding among us,” Wang said. “Research does show that having that empathy, having that dialogue, does bridge gaps, does help us understand each other and does see others’ views as more legitimate that way.”

Kruse said the mantra of “see something, say something” also applies to elections and said his office and others around the state stand ready to assist voters.

Wang said there’s a need for media literacy, too. 

State Sen. Tony Vargas of Omaha introduced LB 1371, to require media literacy in K-12 schools and set a graduation requirement. The Education Committee considered the bill Feb. 20.

AI also brings benefits

Civic Nebraska hosts AI and democracy summit at UNL ahead of legislative hearing
Panelists, from left: Gina Ligon, director of NCITE at UNO; Brian Kruse, Douglas County Election Commissioner; and UNL Professors Matt Waite and Bryan Wang in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications. Feb. 24, 2024. (Zach Wendling/Nebraska Examiner)

At the end of the event, Uhing and panelists noted that AI is not all bad in the realm of democracy. Waite said AI could expand community news, which has been shrinking nationwide, or could be used to systematically review voter rolls.

Kruse said voters in Douglas County recently asked for a “remonstrance petition” to stop local government from doing something. AI could help teach staff about such a petition.

He also said quasi-public safety tools could review Douglas County’s 13 dropboxes and associated cameras to identify a suspect should there be an issue.

“I don’t have the staff, the time or the funds to sit there and monitor my cameras 24/7,” Kruse said.

Waite said AI is “not all evil” and encouraged people to play around with it for themselves.

“You’re not giving away your moral soul if you type into a chat window,” Waite said. “Try a few things out and see what happens.”

Editor’s note: Reporter Zach Wendling was a student in Waite’s fall class on AI.