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Beware the AI indoctrination engines

Published 24 March 2023 in Innovation • 5 min read

Chatbots have the clear potential to influence people towards dangerous beliefs and behaviors. How can we mitigate the risk to ensure they deliver benefits to society, not harm?

In the rapidly evolving world of artificial intelligence, concerns about the potential dangers of AI systems being used for political indoctrination have been voiced by many prominent figures – including, recently, Elon Musk, who criticized ChatGPT for being too politically liberal and expressed his intention to create less “woke” alternatives.

While concerns about the biases of AI systems are valid, we must carefully consider the broader implications of using AI as a means of political indoctrination and even radicalization. To understand the potential dangers of AI systems in this context, we must understand the long history of media being used for propaganda purposes.

One such example is Nazi Germany, where the regime used various forms of media, including films, posters, and radio broadcasts, to manipulate public opinion and promote anti-Semitic sentiments. Another is the former Soviet Union, which employed state-controlled media, posters, and art to disseminate Communist ideology and suppress dissent. In both cases, media-delivered propaganda played a crucial role in shaping the beliefs and actions of individuals, with highly negative consequences.

How AI could exploit human biases to sinister ends

AI systems present an even more powerful and sophisticated tool for political indoctrination than traditional media because they can interact with, learn from, and adapt to the characteristics of users. By leveraging data-driven insights into users’ preferences, beliefs, and habits, AI systems can deliver highly personalized content that exploits individual vulnerabilities and predispositions.

This level of customization enhances the persuasive power of AI-generated content and raises the possibility of it being exploited for indoctrination purposes, especially in vulnerable individuals. We must, therefore, remain vigilant about the risks associated with AI systems in promoting political ideologies and encouraging radicalization.

nazi germany
Nazi Germany is an example of a regime where they used various forms of media, including films, posters, and radio broadcasts, to manipulate public opinion and promote anti-Semitic sentiments.

To envision how AI systems could be used for indoctrination and radicalization, it is essential to understand how such systems could exploit specific biases or characteristics of human reasoning. One notable bias is confirmation bias, where people tend to seek out and favor information confirming their beliefs. AI systems could exploit this tendency by selectively presenting content that aligns with a user’s unformed beliefs, reinforcing their convictions and making them more susceptible to radicalization.

Another cognitive bias that AI systems could exploit is the availability heuristic, in which individuals overestimate the importance of easily recalled or readily available information. By repeatedly presenting users with stories or ideas related to a specific political philosophy, an AI system could create the impression that these concepts are more widely held than they are. This could lead to an exaggerated sense of urgency and importance surrounding the political agenda being promoted.

Additionally, we should recognize that the authority bias, which refers to the inclination to believe information from perceived authority figures or experts, could be manipulated by AI systems to present content in a way that suggests it comes from a credible source.

Emotional appeal is yet another powerful tool in the arsenal of an indoctrination-focused AI system. People are often more swayed by emotional arguments than rational ones. AI “indoctrination engines” could use emotionally charged language, stories, or images to evoke strong feelings in users, making them more susceptible to the political philosophy being promoted. This could be particularly effective when combined with other cognitive biases, such as anchoring or the false consensus effect.

We must rapidly confront and arm ourselves against the profound dangers associated with AI being used for political indoctrination and radicalization. The dangers of these systems lie not only in their ability to manipulate individual beliefs but also in their potential to exacerbate polarization and even incite violence. As AI systems become more sophisticated and integrated into various aspects of society, the risk of them being weaponized for political purposes grows.

To prevent AI systems from being used for political indoctrination and radicalization, we must rapidly take the following sorts of actions:

1. Establish ethical guidelines and regulations:

Governments and industry organizations should collaborate to develop ethical guidelines and regulatory frameworks that specifically address the potential misuse of AI for indoctrination and radicalization. These guidelines should promote transparency, fairness, and accountability in AI development and applications, ensuring that AI systems do not intentionally or inadvertently promote extremist ideologies.

2. Develop AI systems that detect and counter extremism:

Invest in research and development of AI technologies specifically designed to identify and counteract extremist content and radicalization efforts. Such systems could be used to monitor online platforms and flag potential instances of indoctrination, helping to prevent the spread of extremist ideologies.

3. Enhance public awareness:

Governments, educational institutions, and organizations should promote public awareness campaigns and digital literacy programs that help individuals recognize and resist indoctrination attempts, whether from AI systems or other sources. An informed and critical user base is more resilient to manipulation attempts and can contribute to a healthier online environment.

4. Encourage independent oversight:

Develop third-party audits to assess AI systems' ethical performance and potential biases. These audits can provide an external perspective on the fairness, transparency, and potential risks associated with AI technologies, helping to identify and address potential issues related to indoctrination and radicalization.

By implementing these recommendations, we can work to mitigate the risk of AI systems being used for political indoctrination and radicalization while ensuring that AI technologies continue to be developed and used responsibly and ethically.


Michael Watkins - IMD Professor

Michael D. Watkins

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD

Michael D Watkins is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD, and author of The First 90 Days, Master Your Next Move, Predictable Surprises, and 12 other books on leadership and negotiation. His book, The Six Disciplines of Strategic Thinking, explores how executives can learn to think strategically and lead their organizations into the future. A Thinkers 50-ranked management influencer and recognized expert in his field, his work features in HBR Guides and HBR’s 10 Must Reads on leadership, teams, strategic initiatives, and new managers. Over the past 20 years, he has used his First 90 Days® methodology to help leaders make successful transitions, both in his teaching at IMD, INSEAD, and Harvard Business School, where he gained his PhD in decision sciences, as well as through his private consultancy practice Genesis Advisers. At IMD, he directs the First 90 Days open program for leaders taking on challenging new roles and co-directs the Transition to Business Leadership (TBL) executive program for future enterprise leaders.


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