Before the internet, opposition research in the political war room was characterized by a common activity: the frantic search for ammunition. It didn’t matter where the room was, or what the people in it were fighting for — the hunt for that blatant lie, classic “flip-flop,” problematic position or elusive photograph was a common pursuit.
Today, the activity persists, though the method is different. It’s easier, more expansive and deadlier. When accessible search engines first entered campaign headquarters they transformed everything. Suddenly the hunt was only seconds long, while the amount of searchable material and ammunition steadily grew. From that point on, candidates were simply held to a higher standard of accountability for their past statements, positions and deeds. Our politics changed forever.
Fast forward to the arrival of ChatGPT late last month, a dialogue-based artificial intelligence that can write human language and understand complex queries. You might be wondering if this technology will hold similarly revolutionary promise for today’s politics, and you would be right to.
The implications for education, copyright law and job markets are obvious, but for politics its repercussions are murkier. As yet, there is little justification for hyperbole. When it comes to writing, it’s a decidedly uncreative author. Will it generate groundbreaking campaign slogans, effective taunts, steely defences? No time soon. For now, speech writers and political strategists won’t go hungry.
However, that does not mean politics won’t feel this technology’s reverberations. All major leaps forward in information technology cause our engagement with, and expectations of, political messaging to shift. Many vehemently argue that the messages have changed with the mediums, that our rhetoric is in decline, that our political language is growing increasingly ineloquent. To those individuals, I would say: I see where you’re coming from, but I would also say that Marshall McLuhan was right: the medium is the message.
The utter saturation of political messaging on media platforms, its unescapable nature, has meant that our attention spans have diminished. With this reality comes exhaustion, fatigue and an alarming degree of apathy. But political actors should be wary of interpreting this trend as a sign that quality and substance in their communications no longer counts.
Even though banal, scripted political messages flood our airwaves daily, politicians can only get by with sterile rhetoric for so long. When people start to care about what you’re talking about, when they start to listen, words matter. How you write them. How you say them.
“Thoughts and prayers” will simply not do when it’s your sister or brother who has been harmed. Promises of a “better tomorrow” will not suffice when you must tell your children Christmas will be different this year. And when a tired political line reaches a young mother who is wide awake, worried sick about her finances, it simply cannot comfort or inspire.
In politics, there are few things as important as communicating to people that you genuinely care, that what matters to them also matters to you.
Although its true impact will not be felt in the political realm for some time, the latest development in AI technology will contribute to an already growing culture of suspicion underlying our politics: that politicians scarcely, if ever, mean what they say or think for themselves.
The notion of robotic writing or delivery takes on new meaning here. If not already, accusations that a speech sounds robotic will soon be less an uninventive barb than a genuine allegation. Such a charge matters for practical and ethical reasons, and it matters for our expectation of political speech.
When issues emerge that truly matter to people, their expectations for sincere and meaningful communication will be higher. Likewise, the value of the X-factor in politics — that ability to convey sincerity and to craft authentic messaging — will deepen. We humans have our work cut out for us.