Please select your state
so that we can show you the most relevant content.

AI, elections, and political speech

Sep 29, 2023 by David Voorman

Newsletter readers: Please welcome back my AFP colleague David Voorman, who joined us a few months ago to discuss self-censorship, protest rights, and professional athletes. He’s back this week to look at the ways politicians and government use new technologies as an excuse to censor speech.

– Casey

What does artificial intelligence have to do with free speech? A lot, it turns out:

  • The Washington Post warns “ChatGPT breaks its own rules on political messages”
  • Bloomberg Law cautions “deepfake political ads are ‘wild west’ for campaign lawyers”
  • POLITICO declares “changing tech might just eclipse the free-speech debate”

And that just scratches the surface on coverage that highlights fears of the new technology in connection with our political debates!

This month, the Senate has held a series of meetings on the dangers posed by AI. On Wednesday, the Senate Rules Committee held a hearing titled “AI and future of our elections.” One of the senators running this hearing was Senator Amy Klobuchar, who has introduced legislation targeting people using AI to create political ads.

AI may feel new. But this kind of political overreach isn’t.

Former FTC Acting Chief Technologist and Center for Growth & Opportunity Senior Research Fellow Neil Chilson raised those very concerns in the Senate hearing.

Politicians and governments have used fears and concerns about new technologies as a pretext for expanding their powers to censor or regulate the products and information associated with those technologies for all of recorded history.

  • Printing press: The invention of the printing press in the 15th century revolutionized the spread of information. It was immediately met with concern and censorship beginning with the Catholic Church, and ultimately European printers faced censorship from governments across the continent and from opposing ideologies. These governments censored under the guise of protecting the public, but their aim was to control the dissemination of ideas.
  • Phonograph: In 1878, The New York Times warned of the danger of Thomas Edison’s invention of the phonograph, or record player. The paper complained “Mr. Edison has invented too many things, and almost without exception they are things of the most deleterious character… he invented the phonograph, a machine that catches the lightest whisper of conversation and stores it up, so that at any future time it can be brought out, to the confusion of the original speaker.”
  • Car radios: In the 1930s, various states introduced legislation to ban car radios or fine people who used them. The fear was that drivers would be too distracted by the radio to drive – or even be lulled to sleep by certain programming.
  • Email: A CNN article (from 2005!) reported on a British study that found that workers checking email throughout the day suffered a loss of IQ worse than using marijuana.

It is notable that at the forefront of so many of these warnings were the people in power, and we’re seeing the same dynamic play out in the AI space as it relates to political ads.

While you may be tempted to laugh this overreaction off, there is a real danger to speech here.

There are very real concerns about deep fakes and malicious attempts to mislead voters; for example, telling people voting is on Wednesday instead of Tuesday. But that type of misinformation purposely meant to mislead voters is already illegal, whether you use AI or a fax machine or pieces of paper stapled to utility poles. There is a difference between ads with dark storm clouds over the Capitol building and ominous voiceovers vs. defrauding voters.

First, bills like S. 1596, the REAL Political Advertisements Act, blur the line between political ads and issue advocacy (the difference between supporting a candidate and speaking out about a cause like women’s health, animal welfare, economic policy, etc.).

Second, AI is becoming more and more common and can be a cheaper alternative to traditional ads. That benefits up-and-coming candidates for office who do not have the power and money that incumbent lawmakers have. AI has the real potential to even the playing field and allow for more candidates and more diverse backgrounds.

I am far from a tech expert (I finally traded in my BlackBerry this spring), but I know free speech. And the concerns I hear about AI are far from new.

Any new laws or regulations that result from these hearings will be implemented by incumbent politicians and government bureaucrats.

They will regulate what can be said by candidates for office, and, even worse, groups that want to focus solely on issues, be that health care, immigration, or animal rights.

The Real Political Ads Act would apply to any ad that “communicates a message relating to any political matter of national importance, including… a national legislative issue of public importance.” Think about just how many issues are incorporated by that language.

If you’re still convinced about the dangers of AI and misinformation, think about who should have the power to decide.

The invention of the written word allowed anyone to write anything down and share it with others, the printing press allowed information to be broadly printed and distributed, the internet has supercharged the ability to share information across the globe in a matter of seconds.

The possibility of disinformation and lies is as old as humanity.

The advent of AI doesn’t change that underlying fact. But history has shown that government and people in power should NOT be the arbiters of truth who decide what information is shared.

No wonder an AFP/YouGov survey found more than half of Americans say government should largely or entirely avoid banning misinformation online.

Just as humans have always had to weigh information and decide truth and falsity, that ability will continue to serve us – even as the next technology emerges.

Free speech, no buts.

I hope you enjoyed this POV from my colleague David.

You can reach out with any questions or comments by emailing

Until next time,



Civil liberties are the solution to uncivil times. Join the defense of Free Speech and subscribe to Casey’s newsletter today:

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.