UVa seeks to study potential effects of artificial intelligence on democracy

UVA’s role in promoting civil discourse discussed

Last week, the Academic and Student Life Committee of the University of Virginia’s Board of Visitors got an update on research initiatives from the UVA Provost. One of them is a comprehensive look at how advanced digital technology might affect our system of government. 

“Here the questions are obvious,” said Ian Baucom, UVA’s Executive Vice President and Provost. “How do we understand the ways in which digital technology can open up and transform and bring energy and capacity and vitality to our lives and yet at the same time we know that there are perils associated.”

Baucom said the work will look at how new technologies can affect the ability of a democracy to function as artificial intelligence has the ability to manipulate public opinion. There will also be a look at the effects of digital technology on young people. 

“We all have a strong sense that there is some deep connection between the embeddedness of young people in a digital social media saturated world and the crisis of mental health,” Baucom said. “The problem is there’s not yet a clear and dispositive research that indicates what the nature of that relationship is, how you can intervene?” 

For more information, visit the research topic on the UVA website.

For more from the presentation, view the entire slide presentation for the Academic and Student Life Committee of the UVA Board of Visitors (download)

UVA’s role in promoting civil discourse discussed

The Academic and Student Life Committee also continued a broad discussion about democracy in our society. 

“We have had this ongoing series of conversations on our commitment to being an educational institution where we seek to educate for citizenship,” Baucom said. “And core to that is ensuring that our students and our faculty and our community are really committed to civil discourse across differences.” 

Baucom introduced two different speakers to continue the conversation.

School of Law Professor Leslie Kendrick is serving as a special advisor to the Provost on free expression and free inquiry. She also wrote a statement adopted by the Board of Visitors in June 2021 and she told the committee that she wants it to be a living document. 

“Free expression and free inquiry, advances the search for truth, fosters self-development, and undergirds democracy,” Kendrick said. “Theorists and practitioners have long-recognized the relationship between free speech and the democratic process including that the absence of one generally indicates the absence of the other.” 

Kendrick said across the country, there have been many calls at colleges and universities for some speakers to be denied a platform. She said the law is straightforward. 

“In the context of student events, student groups are generally not state actors which means they are to be treated by the government the same as any private individual would be,” Kendrick said. “This means that a public university cannot disinvite a speaker or cancel an event hosted by a student group for reasons having to do with the viewpoint of a speaker or the event. Likewise, a public university may not suppress or interfere with the speech of protestors or demonstrators because of their view point.”

The University of Virginia’s policies are available on their dedicated free speech website. Kendrick said all new and returning students have to acknowledge these policies before being allowed access to the student information system. 

“Our biggest challenge and our biggest strength is that we draw students from all backgrounds and perspectives, many of whom have never encountered this much diversity of perspective of before,” Kendrick said. 

Melody Barnes, the Executive Director of the Karsh Institute for Democracy, said a healthy democracy requires both robust and respectful dialog as well as a free exchange of ideas. 

“This is an increasing problem in our society that partisan and political divide and the friction between ideological perspectives is on the rise and in fact if we look at a 2022 Pew Research Center survey, what we see is that Republicans and Democrats not only think less favorably of the opposing party, but they think less favorably of people in the opposing party,” Barnes said.

Barnes said the University of Virginia’s strategic plan for 2030 puts the issue front and center and that the Karsh Institute will play a large role in fostering civil discourse. They call the work Talking Across Difference, or TXD. A website lists several programs underway including a three-day symposium coming up in October. (view the website)

Before you go: The time to write and research of this article is covered by paid subscribers to Charlottesville Community Engagement. In fact, this particular installment comes from the June 5, 2023 edition of the program. To ensure this research can be sustained, please consider becoming a paid subscriber or contributing monthly through Patreon.

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