Senator Schumer rings the alarm about harms of AI for Black voters

During a press briefing with select Black media outlets, including theGrio, the Senate majority leader indicated the nation's first bill to regulate AI will focus on elections.

The United States Senate is racing against time to develop legislation protecting Black voters from the potential harms of AI during next year’s presidential and general elections.

During a recent press briefing with select Black media outlets, including theGrio, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., indicated that the nation’s first-ever bill to regulate quickly advancing artificial intelligence will focus on how to safeguard voters from disinformation.  

Senator Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., addresses the Black press and industry leaders during a briefing on the impacts of AI in Black communities. (Photo: Office of Senator Chuck Schumer)

“We have to do elections first,” Schumer said inside his Senate office. The New York lawmaker noted that AI-generated deepfakes (manipulated facial appearances), political ads, and chatbots have been particularly concerning as the 2024 elections ramp up. 

Schumer said Black voters are among those who have been “most targeted” by disinformation spread through AI-generated content. 

When asked by theGrio if legislation has already been drafted to curb AI’s potential harm to the voting process and its outsized impact on Black communities, Schumer confirmed that there is some drafted text on watermarking already underway. Watermarking tools are used to label content as AI-generated for public awareness. 

However, the Senate Rules Committee must draft any AI election-related legislation before it is ultimately taken up for a vote. Schumer said his focus is to ensure that measures safeguarding against bias are included in any upcoming legislation.

Concerns about bias in AI technology have been a growing concern in Washington and among civil rights leaders and policymakers, particularly as it relates to the harms it can cause to vulnerable and minority groups.

In an effort to begin the work of regulating AI, the White House and Congress have taken some action. 

Last month, President Joe Biden signed the first-ever executive order on AI, which included measures to advance equity and protect civil rights. That same week, Senator Schumer led a series of forums on Capitol Hill with a group of senators and leaders in tech, labor, civil rights, and business to discuss the opportunities and risks of AI.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) speaks during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 15, 2023, in Washington, D.C. Schumer spoke about the two-year anniversary of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Schumer said during last week’s press briefing that he worked to ensure that there was a sizable number of leaders present at the forum who could weigh in on potential legislation to protect the rights of Black Americans.

Participants included Maya Wiley, president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP; Damon Hewitt, president of Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law; and several others.

Melanie L. Campbell, president and CEO of the Coalition on Black Civic Participation, who attended both the forums held by Schumer and last week’s briefing, said the risks of AI during the 2024 elections are something that keeps her and other civil rights leaders up at night. 

“This election will determine what kind of democracy we will have or not have [and] AI will have an impact on that,” said Campbell.

She called for “accountability” for tech companies responsible for building AI technology, as she does not believe they will self-regulate “out of the goodness of their hearts.”

“If Congress and the government don’t step up to form guardrails, nobody else will,” said Schumer. 

The Senate majority leader said that while AI legislation to safeguard the upcoming elections is the major focus, he and his colleagues will take a “broad” look at how Congress can regulate the ever-evolving AI industry from criminal justice and education to healthcare and housing.

“The racism that we’ve seen in our society for centuries is built into the information that these systems suck up,” said Schumer. “So we have no choice but to act, and I don’t think it’s going to be easy.”

Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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