Nudges from Abroad: Investigating American Vulnerability to Foreign Choice Architecture

– Executive Summary

This thesis uses a future scenario methodology to examine the following question: How could China use modern artificial intelligence (AI) and data tools to nudge the United States away from liberal democracy? The study imagines the period surrounding the 2032 federal elections in the United States and identifies three key uncertainties defining that future. Those uncertainties are adjusted on the axes of a three-dimensional scenario space, as depicted in the figure below, to craft a set of narrative stories illustrating plausible futures.

Figure 1. Three-Dimensional Scenario Space

The first of the three uncertainties is the maturity of digital surveillance and accompanying AI tools. In the modern, internet-driven economy, people are continuously monitored and influenced by companies like Google, Facebook, and Amazon to change their consumer behaviors. This same technology could be used by an authoritarian state not only to control its own population but also to nudge the attitudes and actions of people outside its borders, such as the American voting public.

The second uncertainty is the level of aggression China shows in using those technologies to change the liberal democratic ideals and actions of Americans. China is developing technological tools that can drive human behavior and could use those tools to nudge people’s attitudes outside its borders. How aggressively it uses those tools to such ends is an uncertain element driving this thesis study.

The third uncertainty is the relative strength of liberalism and democracy in the United States. While there is broad concern about the health of liberal democracy in the United States and across the West more generally, it is uncertain whether this worry among scholars indicates a broad, long-term trend or simply the normal growing pains of democratic progress.

Each scenario in this thesis resides at a discrete point along the three axes of uncertainty. Those possible futures were used to craft narrative stories illustrating what such a future could look like. The first story follows a corporation navigating pressure from China to temper an employee’s personal speech. The second story follows a woman who is slowly radicalized by AI-driven technological interventions and then shows the possible effects of such radicalization when deployed by a foreign adversary at massive scale. The third story follows an entrepreneur whose consumer product business in China renders him vulnerable to the Chinese government’s demands to turn over his internet media company’s user data.

The aim of these three narratives was not to predict the future nor to encompass the total range of possible future variability. Instead, they were designed as tools to draw findings, which led to the following conclusions:

  1. Intrusive data surveillance is a threat to democracy.
  2. China has multiple levers available to influence American thought.
  3. American corporations are susceptible to foreign nudging.
  4. Online stimuli can produce offline actions.
  5. American democracy may be as vulnerable to physical attack as it is to ideological attack.

These conclusions led to the following recommendations:

  1. Continuously educate Americans of all ages to improve and maintain high levels of technological and media literacy.
  2. Regulate how personal data are used and shared.
  3. Invest in American AI research and development.
  4. Lead the world in supporting free discourse and liberal democracy.

The future is unknowable, but this thesis applies lessons from the future to inform the present. By setting different values for three critical uncertainties—technological maturity, foreign aggression, and American democratic resilience—that test alternative futures, this thesis explores the ways in which a foreign adversary like China could alter America’s liberal democratic values. Each of the three scenarios in this thesis offers its own insights into the benefits, risks, and opportunities that could be realized, and the resultant findings and recommendations help to explain how democracy might thrive—or deteriorate—as new AI and surveillance technologies grow more central to modern life.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top