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Sophie LambinMar 14, 2024 10:16:24 AM8 min read


Business Leadership Amidst 2024 Elections Around the Globe 

A joint article by BSR and Kite Insights

By Aron Cramer and Sophie Lambin with foreword from Marc Lacey, The New York Times. 

Election night is a big thing in every newsroom. Pizzas are ordered and journalists hunker down for a long night of watching the returns arrive. In 2024, at a global newsroom like the one I help run, we're going to have scores of election nights. All across the globe, voters will be heading to the polls in what is shaping up as one of the biggest years ever for elections. It's worth taking a pause, as a group of us did in Davos, to consider the many risks that those elections could face, and what the role of business ought to be in ensuring that the polling is free and fair. 

Marc Lacey, Managing Editor of The New York Times 

The stage is set for 2024 to be the biggest ever year for elections. This is the inescapable truth that was at the core of the dialogue we convened at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in January.  

In Davos, geopolitics, AI, disinformation, citizen trust, and questions around leadership presented a perfect storm of risk this year when more than half the world’s people live in countries where elections are scheduled. Already, 20 companies have made specific commitments to deploy technology to combat the deceptive use of harmful AI content in the 2024 elections at the Munich Security Conference in February. 

But, if the ability of global institutions to fulfil their duty is being questioned, as over half of the world’s voters go to the polls, then what are the stakes for businesses?  

Do business leaders have a duty to ensure that democratic processes are protected, and if so, what is it? When employees, citizens as well as consumers demand businesses take a stand on the issues that matter, why might business leaders feel hesitant or ill-equipped to do so? BSR and Kite Insights hosted a discussion to explore that very subject:  Business Leadership Amidst 2024 Elections Around the Globe. A discussion that one of our speakers, Sandrine Dixson-Declève, Co-President, Club of Rome, said was ‘one of the most important’ of 2024. 

Rebuilding Trust amidst AI, Deepfakes and Misinformation 

In a year with over 64 national elections (plus the EU) around the world, Sandrine’s reflection is well-founded. New York Times Managing Editor Marc Lacey, who moderated the roundtable, took it a step further, inviting the speakers to ponder if these ‘60+ elections’ should in fact constitute “one big election”. In today’s polarised societies, elections can feel like an emotional referendum on which national and political institutions voters trust most, if any.  

The upcoming European Parliament election embodies this question of institutional trust in the context of the rise of far-right populism, noted Daniel Sachs, Founder and CEO, P Capital Partners, and Vice-Chair, Open Society Foundation. At the same time, he pointed out how “populism and polarisation are not necessarily an ideological battle. If you poll why people switch to the fringe, it’s because they want change from the status quo and they don’t see centrist parties as credible leaders of that change”. So, perhaps a valuable question for business leaders to ask themselves is how can they represent and facilitate inclusive systemic change while remaining politically central or even neutral? 

One option might be how you show up publicly in the right way. But artificial intelligence has disrupted and destabilized how leaders are perceived publicly and whether the public information about them is authentic, pointed out Teresa Hutson, CVP of Tech for Fundamental Rights, Microsoft.  

AI may be the next big business opportunity, but it also poses unique challenges to democracy and elections. Digital innovations, such as generative AI, are producing a seemingly infinite number of ‘deepfakes’, or digitally generated artificial content, ready to distract and deceive the public. Mistrust and populism are amplified by such misinformation and disinformation.  

Teresa Hutson shared her concerns around how nation-state and non-state actors are already targeting democracies and sowing the seeds of disruption through online deepfakes. In India, for instance, where 945 million people are eligible to vote in what was called the “largest coordinated event in history”, the impact of audio deepfakes on voters is particularly worrying. “If you are on the internet, you can be faked”, Teresa said. And, in a world where deepfakes are so good that candidates themselves cannot always see the difference between their own voice and digitally generated copies, “how can you ensure voters are getting quality information while able to distinguish trusted speech from a deepfake?”. 

It's an unnerving thought. That’s why Teresa and Aron Cramer, President and CEO, BSR, call on other tech companies and civil society to work together to enable online communities to respond in the face of misinformation and disinformation: “Businesses can use their voice to move regulation in a positive direction, they have the legitimacy to speak up”, said Aron, while acknowledging that this can be an uncomfortable space for business leaders to operate. 

How businesses – and business leaders – can build trust in the context of 2024’s elections? Nonetheless, in this perfect global risk storm, business has again emerged as the most trusted institution, according to the recently published Edelman Trust Barometer. On issues like climate change and inequality, over half of survey respondents want business to do more; and just a tenth of respondents feel business is overstepping on these issues.  

Why might consumers and employees trust business? “People trust what they know”, commented Teresa Hutson. Workers might be inclined to trust their employers in the same way that people trust their family, neighbours, or university: because they are close to them and well-understood. At the very least then perhaps there is time for some kind of localized informal legitimacy and even duty for business leaders to engage in these topics on behalf of their employees. 

Today, individuals have immeasurably more power than ever, meaning that people increasingly demand and expect what Aron Cramer calls “a DIY world: people want what they want, when they want it”. This consumer and people-led world marks a departure from the great political or civic institutions that traditionally drove change. “We are wrong if we think the battle of democracy is won at the ballot”, said Daniel Sachs. In a time when institutions are weak and businesses enjoy public trust, “it’s no longer enough for the private sector to support civil society to challenge institutions. We need to engage in non-partisan democratic systems change”. Facilitating and unlocking the latent potential in citizen and employee-led action can help them do that in a way that is a more comfortable space to business: through democratic innovation.  

For some business leaders, the most obvious action is to influence change through politics. But ‘influence’ can be a dirty word in the murky world of public-to-private sector relationships, as Aron noted. In some democratic systems, business is seen as having too much influence, highlighted Sandrine Dixson-Decleve: through political capture of regulators by corporates; lobbying of lawmakers; and obstruction of intergovernmental processes like United Nations climate change meetings. If influencing regulation is uncomfortable ground for businesses, then business leaders should perhaps seek to steward systems change, helping inform and guide governments toward the level of change that societies need. This is the ethos behind Steve Waygood’s concept of macro stewardship, which could serve as a helpful framework for business leaders in a year of unavoidable political interdependency. 

We get the political leaders we deserve. How do we get the political leaders we want? 

So, how should business leaders go about engaging and inspiring the political leadership we want and need?  

First, businesses can look at their own leadership to ensure that it is diverse, equitable, inclusive, and empathetic. To facilitate systemic change, businesses must themselves be the change they seek to influence by creating an environment where inclusive leadership is rewarded, not attacked.  

When women public figures face gender-related abuse, observed Sandrine Dixson-Declève, that further reduces women's incentive to step up and lead in business and politics. Both Sandrine and Daniel Sachs reflected that the negative way we speak about political leaders in society and culture has made it an undesirable career and diminished society’s trust in leaders, a cultural narrative that businesses could help revert. “We should talk respectfully about it and encourage others” to enter politics, Daniel commented. 

Business leaders can also take decisive action toward systemic change in areas they’re directly involved with. This means anticipating and proactively mitigating the potential harms of their products, suggests Teresa Hutson. For instance, AI-generated audio helps people who have lost their voice, but it can also be used to create audio deepfakes. Similarly, thoughtful engagement between private and public sector leaders around the challenges that businesses understand best can help strengthen the role democratic institutions can play in systemic change. “Business leaders need to engage in the dynamic of change of political systems”, as Daniel Sachs put it: less so in the individual issues of the day and more so in the practice of informing, incentivising, and stewarding systemic change, because healthy democratic systems and stable elections are good for business, for society and for the planet.  

With over half of the world’s population voting in an election this year and the perfect storm of geopolitics, AI and misinformation, this year’s elections are facing broad, deep and new risks. Business leaders have the opportunity – and duty – to help re-establish trust that leads to outcomes that enable progress on crucial social, economic and environmental questions, and contribute to building social cohesion amidst polarization and fragmentation.  But where might a business leader start? Three possible steps resonated throughout the discussion:  

  1. Promote citizen engagement and action, including your own employees. 
  2. Raise awareness of the risks in the digital information ecosystem, so that the citizens and employees have reliable information on which to base their judgements 
  3. Use your voice as a leading business to reinforce the importance of democracy and rule of law.