The frailty of elections

IMG_4810A Chatham House discussion yesterday looked at just how frail elections around the world are at the moment. People from both the George W Bush and Obama era Department for Homeland Security spoke about their concern for elections in the US and around the world.

Michael Chertoff (from the W era DHS) set out the concerns. First, that hacking could be used to alter the results of an election. Second, that social media campaigns involving bots and fake news can be used to sway elections and third that online manipulation is reaching such a point that ‘deep fakes’ may soon be good enough to completely fake video and audio and thereby portray real people saying completely fake things.

None of the three speakers (Chertoff, Amy Pope – Obama era DHS, and Susan Morgan from Open Society Foundations) could offer a magic bullet. Better education of young people to be able to spot fake news and disregard it is great – but it is a very long term solution. Partnerships between governments and social media companies to persuade the carriers to block the bots and fake news creators is happening to a certain extent. But there are also stories that a senior executive at Twitter intervened to prevent Alex Jones of InfoWars being kicked off the platform because he is good for traffic. And international agreements to take action against those states which seek to interfere in the elections of others are nice in theory, but to be effective you first have to admit there is a problem – something that is still being debated in the US (and also in the UK as regards the sanctity of the Brexit referendum).

Ultimately there will be both state actors and private groups involved in election manipulation. There are many countries where systems have been developed to control the outcome of an election for domestic purposes. That those same systems might also offer a foreign policy option is merely an added bonus. And the motivation behind election manipulation – whether fixing the result or promoting fake news type attacks – will vary. In some cases it will be to secure the election of a favoured candidate. In others it will be to ensure that another candidate does not win. But in many cases it will be to sow distrust or discord. The example was given that in Ukraine a system was developed to ensure fake results were carried by a leading broadcaster. The real results would emerge eventually of course, but the conflict between the two would lead many ordinary Ukrainians to lose confidence in the democratic process or the government.

The major concern, however, is not just that there is a lack of real solutions to the perceived problem. It is that we are focussed on solving yesterday’s problem. Just as drug smugglers always have faster speedboats than the authorities trying to catch them, those trying to rig elections will always be one step ahead of those trying to safeguard them.

This is, of course, at one level just another argument for paper ballots and abandoning electronic and online voting and counting which is more open to abuse. But it is also an argument for western countries to work together with the social media platforms to convince them that real action is needed on their part to block the obvious efforts to manipulate elections.

And on a state level, it emphasises the need for established democracies to continue to support the democratic progress of those countries where elections are less secure. This should include election observation of course – and some sort of system for observing the social media campaign needs to be developed. But it also means supporting countries between elections – helping them to build their democratic and parliamentary structures. Sadly, all of these are areas where governments find it easy to make budget cuts.