Munich 2024: Protecting Elections in the Age of AI
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The Algorithm Candidate: Vivek Ramaswamy

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy speaks during the Republican presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.​

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy speaks during the Republican presidential primary debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum.

USA Today network via Reuters

Let’s talk about Vivek Ramaswamy, who I call The Algorithm Candidate. Why does a guy polling at 5% with little-to-no shot of winning the Republican race matter so much?

For one, winning is beside the point to Ramaswamy. He is auditioning for either a Trump vice presidency or for the next campaign, where he hopes to hot-wire the MAGA right for his quest for power. How will he do this?

By becoming a creature of the algorithm. Ramaswamy, even more than Trump, is a candidate self-created to maximize and amplify algorithmically generated outrage, conspiracy, and chaos. He has created a self-perpetuating feedback loop, seeking out the populist paranoias promoted by algorithms, and repeating them publicly, which supercharges the algorithms and re-amplifies them again online. Round and round it goes.

It is a dynamic that Max Fisher exposed in his superb book “The Chaos Machine: The Inside Story of How Social Media Rewired Our Minds and Our World.” “It was as if your community had suddenly decided that it valued provocation and outrage above all else, rewarding it with waves of attention that were, in reality, algorithmically generated,” writes Fisher. “And because the algorithm down-sorted posts it judged as unengaging, the inverse was true, too. It felt as if your peers suddenly scorned nuance and emotional moderation with the implicit rejection of ignoring you. Users seemed to absorb those cues, growing meaner and angrier, intent on humiliating out-group members, punishing social transgressors, and validating one another’s worldviews.”

This is a near-perfect description of the Ramaswamy campaign and why in debates he doesn’t answer questions but creates algorithm-friendly memes to supercharge outrage that supports his campaign. He is the Chaos Machine candidate incarnate.

The 38-year-old, Harvard-educated lawyer and multi-millionaire entrepreneur speaks with the laminar flow velocity of a tap on full blast. He began his public life as an anti-woke crusader but has now expanded into a full-blown conspiracy-touting flamethrower. He has grown with the algorithm.

If you watched him last night on his CNN town hall – or any of the debates or his rallies – Ramaswamy confidently now shills extreme beliefs, conveniently deleting facts and reality to package them into pretty little meme boxes that he calls “truths” that he promptly releases online to fundraise for his fury-driven campaign.

The danger is that he is also amplifying disinformation and conspiracy theories that benefit the malign intentions of countries like Russia and China. At times, it looks like his platform was written specifically by Moscow and Beijing.

Hey Putin, want the US out of Ukraine so you can take over the country? Ramaswamy is your man. He called the Jewish Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a Nazi, and he argues that the US should stop support for Ukraine and cede the country to Russia, as long as Moscow stops its relationship with … China.

His idea is that Russia will somehow become a US ally in exchange for Ukraine and no more sanctions, and that will make China scared to invade Taiwan because now the US won’t have to fight two superpower enemies. Do you follow? Ok. Putin is all in on this one.

And for you President Xi?

Ramaswamy is also ready to cede Taiwan to China, but … only after the US no longer needs Taiwan to provide it with superconductors, which he claims will happen by 2028. So, the US would arm Taiwan for four years, and then, after semiconductor independence, China, it is all yours.

Destabilize US intuitions and democracy? Got you covered with a bouquet of conspiracy theories:

  • “January 6th now does look like it was an inside job?" he said at the last debate, with very little evidence.
  • 9/11 was likely orchestrated by the US government, he told The Atlantic.
  • The 2022 election was “rigged by Big Tech” is a fan favorite.

Now he’s even promoting the far-right racist “Great Replacement Theory,” which alleges that there is a plan to wipe out the white race. “The ‘Great Replacement Theory’ is not some grand right-wing conspiracy theory,” he yelled at the last debate. “But a basic statement of the Democratic Party's platform.”

That one had far-right racist antisemites like Nick Fuentes, who dined with Donald Trump and who recently said on his Rumble show that Christians in America should wipe out and kill all Jews, delighted.

Ramaswamy calls climate change a hoax. He wants to fire 1 million federal workers, and close the Department of Education and the FBI. And on it goes.

In other words, the more chaos, the more the algorithms love him, the more popular he gets, and the more damage is done.

In 2016, I wrote a piece about Justin Trudeau calling him the first “viral Prime Minister, creating political ‘moments’ specifically so they become shareable.”

But soon everyone was doing that. Times have changed. In 2015, the candidate could control the algorithms to create viral moments. In 2023, the algorithms control the candidate to create viral moments.

With the acceleration capabilities of AI, this will get worse.

At the height of the Cold War, Frank Sinatra starred in a film called "The Manchurian Candidate," which was remade with Denzel Washington in 2004. It was about a soldier brainwashed by communist Korean forces to destabilize and help overthrow the US government. It was a paranoid fantasy that captured the zeitgeist of a paranoid era.

Now, things are different. No need to brainwash one soldier when you can brainwash millions online and then get a leader to market it at no cost? Who needs The Manchurian Candidate when The Algorithm Candidate gets the chaos job done much faster? Ramaswamy is just the beginning.


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