Australia to vote on May 18th

Australians will vote for a new lower house of parliament on May 18th after PM Scott Morrison announced the widely expected polls. In a very Australian turn of phrase, Morrison described the vote about giving people a ‘fair go’.

The current government is formed by a coalition of Morrison’s Liberal Party (he took over as PM after ousting Malcolm Turnbull last year) and the National Party. In Australian terms the Liberal Party is a broadly conservative force. The opposition is dominated by the Labor Party. The current parliament has a number of independents who have exerted a lot of power over the minority government.

Elections to the House of Representatives are conducted using the alternative vote (or instant runoff voting) in single member constituencies and voting is compulsory. At the last election, the Liberal/National coalition was re-elected with 76 seats – a bare one seat majority in the 150 seat house. Labor won 69 seats and Greens, Centre Party, Australia Party and two independents won a seat each.

Since the 2016 poll, two Liberal members faced (and won) by-elections caused by the dual nationality crisis. One Labor member faced a by-election for similar reasons and the party held the seat. At present five seats are vacant – four due to the nationality issue.

Current polls put the coalition marginally ahead with 38%, Labor on 35%, the Greens on 11%, One Nation on 5% and others on 10%. However, the AV election system often results in straight fights between the top two parties after minor candidates have been eliminated. The majority of these voters favour Labor and so the two party preference polling currently shows the party leading 52-48 over the coalition.

Netanyahu wins in Israel for the 5th time

[Updated to reflect the final vote tallies and that The New Right slipped below the threshold]

Israel has voted and it seems pretty clear that Benjamin Netanyahu has succeeded in his aim of becoming the country’s longest serving Prime Minister. After a fractious campaign against the new Blue and White Party led by former Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, Netanyahu is in the best place to form a ruling coalition.

As ever in Israel, no single party has enough seats to form a government on its own. The national list system, combined with a 3.25% threshold, means that there are going to be either 11 or 12 parties in the 120 seat Knesset. And with religious parties and parties on the right being able to muster around 67 of those seats, Netanyahu is in a much stronger position than Gantz.

As things stand, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party holds 36 seats. Their potential coalition partners line up as follows:

Shas 8; UTJ 7; Yisrael Beytenu 5; Kulanu 4; URP 5;

Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party holds 35 seats, and the rest of the opposition is:

Labor 6; Meretz 4; Hadash-Ta’al 6; Ra’am-Balad 4.

After voting was over and all ballots have been counted, there was still some uncertainty. The New Right, a party formed by former Minister Neftali Bennet, was briefly listed as securing 3.26% of the vote. But the Central Election Committee reviewed some of the ballots cast by soldiers and others using an absentee ‘double envelope’ system. As a result,  TNR slipped below the threshold and lost their four seats. This didn’t change the overall outcome of the election that much, but still constitutes a massive failure for Bennet who helped to bring down the previous government when he walked out of Netanyahu’s cabinet.

Formally, the parties have two weeks of horse-trading before the President calls them in to see who can form a government. He does not have to call on a party leader to be the new Prime Minister, but it seems all but certain that Netanyahu will be receiving the call.

The campaign itself was dominated by unprecedented interventions from abroad with Netanyahu getting the explicit backing of Donald Trump (who announced his support for formally recognising the Golan Heights as part of Israeli territory) and implicit support from Russian, Brazillian and Indian leaders. Netanyahu pulled his traditional last minute rabbit out of the hat by suggesting that he will look to annexe much of the West Bank into Israel. Whether he follows through on this pledge is still in the air.

The other key issue is an investigation by the Attorney General into Netanyahu over ossies of corruption. The indictment has been published and looks strong but will the Prime Minister excape being charged by adopting some form of immunity – the so-called ‘French law’? Will he then seek to become President and avoid the courts for a further 10 years? What will that do for confidence in the Israeli political and judicial system? All these are questions that will dominate Israeli politics for some time to come.

Thai election candidates seek attention with name changes

The Guardian reports the news that 15 candidates in Thailand’s general election have changed their names to either Thaksin or Yingluck – the names of previous Prime Ministers. According to the paper, the tactic is to make candidates memorable to voters in a country where campaign laws are pretty restrictive.

theresa-may-lord-buckethead-united-kingdom-electionIn the UK we have some history of candidates changing their names, although few have tried this particular tactic. Lord Buckethead is one name that appeared on a ballot paper but probably wasn’t on the candidate’s birth certificate.

More controversial was the practice of spoof party names which closely mirrored those of real parties. In the 1994 European Elections, Richard Huggett stood as a Literal Democrat candidate for the Devon and East Plymouth seat, taking more votes than the Conservative Party margin over the Liberal Democrats, leading to a legal challenge by the Liberal Democrat candidate. The subsequent 1998 Registration of Political Parties Act ensured that this sort of thing couldn’t happen again in the future.

In other countries, similar tactics were also used. In the Russian Duma elections of 2003, newly elected President Vladimir Putin faced real challenges to his authority. His United Russia Party needed to win or he ran the risk of being a one term president. The main challengers were the Liberal Democrat Party of Russia (a fiercely nationalist party which, now known simply as LDPR, continues to contest elections under its leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky) and the Communist Party. New parties – Rodina and The Party of Russia’s Rebirth – were created, allegedly aiming to draw votes from both the Liberal Democrats and Communists.

Ukraine Presidential Election latest

The build-up to Ukraine’s Presidential Election continues. 

1. A primer on the politics of Ukraine

If you want a (western) academic view on the forthcoming race, this 30 minute YouTube video by Professor Taras Kuzio is worth watching. It was created in July last year and so does not take into account all the latest developments, but is a good primer.

 

2. Disenfranchisement of IDPs

Elsewhere, Open Democracy have published a paper about the disenfranchisement of internally displaced persons (IDPs) for local elections in Ukraine. Although people who have moved from the Donbas because of the conflict there are able to vote in Presidential and Parliamentary elections, the paper suggests that excluding them from local elections is both unfair and liable to convey the message that they are not ‘proper’ citizens. It may affect their participation in the Presidential election.

3. The political novice

Andreas Umland, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation at Kyiv, has written about the candidacy of the actor and TV producer Volodymyr Zelens’kyy in the Presidential race. Zelens’kyy played the character of the President in the TV show ‘Servant of the People’ and is now the candidate on behalf of the party with the same name.

Umland says that there are significant downsides to Zelens’kyy’s candidacy, not least his lack of any governmental experience. Whilst TV can write situations for a novice president to navigate, how transferrable is that to real life? On the other hand, Umland argues that Zelens’kyy has changed the debate around the Presidential elections. He says that voters regard the two leading candidates – Poroshenko and Tymoshenko – as old news and debate had ossified as a result. He also identifies Zelens’kyy’s jewish roots and south east (Russian speaking) Ukrainian origins as being different from the mainstream debate.

Note: The links shown are the views of the individual authors and not of myself.

Reining the Political ‘Wild West’ – Campaign Rules for the 21st century

The Electoral Reform Society (for whom I worked between 1998 and 2006) have co-ordinated a significant study published today which looks at electoral finance in the UK and in particular what they refer to as the wild west of campaigning – online.

The publication is a series of essays looking at different aspects of the field and includes contributions from the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Electoral Commission.

ERS also has a list of recommendations for changes in the law. They are: 

  1. In the short term, extending the imprint requirement to online campaign materials and improving how campaigners report funding and spending are two of the most readily achievable solutions. The government seems to recognise this and its consultation on imprints was a welcome and important  rst step in this regard.
  2. The creation of a single online database of political adverts, which would be publicly available and easily searchable, would similarly increase transparency and allow voters to identify who has produced a piece of content.
  3. Those charged with enforcing the rules should have suffcient enforcement powers and resources. That must involve strengthening the fines or sanctions so they can act as a meaningful deterrent against wrongdoing. The ICO’s powers were increased considerably in the past year, showing what can be achieved if there is political will.
  4. Parties and the government must properly engage in efforts to establish a statutory code of practice for political parties and campaigners without delay.
  5. More broadly, the ERS is calling for a comprehensive review and overhaul of our electoral law, which needs to be updated and future-proofed for the digital age. The fundamental principle must be to ensure that the public have faith in the democratic process. Alongside efforts to improve the quality of public debate itself, this could transform the murky world of online campaigning into a force for good.

ERS is right to point out that this is an area in which the UK has woeful regulation. UK electoral laws were mostly written in the year 2000 – before widespread use of the internet and before social media such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram were even invented.

Stephen Doughty, Labour MP for Aberavon and one of the contributors, has set out some of the practical changes he believes are necessary:

  1. We should look at which powers sit best with the Electoral Commission – which works best as a regulator and policy body – and which should sit with the police. There should also be unlimited fines for electoral offences, rather than a maximum of £20,000, which is an insufficient deterrent.
  2. All political campaigns should be made to report spending online. We have a precedent for this with the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, which tracks MPs’ spending. This would make it easier for campaigns to track their spending and bring more transparency into elections.
  3. Financial transfers from designated campaign groups during referendums must be banned. Current rules allow the designated campaign to give up to £700,000 to groups as long as they do not coordinate their work, but it is surely unreasonable to think gifts of this size are entirely without expectation, particularly as they create the potential to evade spending limits.
  4. We should regulate paid political digital advertising in the election period with a digital bill of rights for democracy.

Mr Kinnock also announces that he has set up an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Electoral Campaigning Transparency.

Overall this is a significant contribution to the debate. Where this paper is weakest is in setting out a coherent statement of principles for regulation. We cannot just combat the problems that exist at the moment. Given how rarely electoral laws are updated, the action that is taken needs to ensure that the law is future-proofed for further developments in digital campaigning and engagement. ERS identify this in their fifth recommendation, but don’t go on to suggest how this can be done.

You can read the whole ERS paper here.

Elections to watch 2019

There are around 100 national and multi-national elections due to take place in 2019. But the two polls which will garner the most coverage are one which won’t take place until 2020 – the US Presidential election – and one which may or may not happen – an early UK general election.

However there are some highly significant elections coming up which will have an impact on world affairs. I’ve picked a dozen which I think are worth watching:

 

  1. Nigeria: President and Parliament (due 16th February)

Africa’s biggest oil producer goes to the polls

images-3Nigeria’s general election will see the country choose a President and Parliament for the next four years. The President will be the candidate receiving the most votes, but they will only avoid a second round if they get over 25% of the votes in two thirds of the states. Representatives will be elected from each of 360 single member seats and Senators in 108 single member seats using first-past-the-post.

President Buhari is seeking re-election and will face challenges from at least 15 other candidates led by former Vice President Atiku Abubakar.

One factor in this election will be the on-going challenges of the Boko Haram insurgency in the north.

Chatham House and IRI have each produced primers.

 

  1. Thailand: Parliament (due 24th March)

Will the military hand over power?

181292-004-499f1bb9These elections are taking place five years after the last vote. But any idea that the regime elected in 2014 has been governing since then would be wrong. The 2014 elections were declared invalid as the vote had been delayed in part of the country. Rather than the replacement elections that were due the following year, the army launched a coup d’etat and have been in power ever since. They promised new elections in 2015, 2016, 2017 and again in 2018 but none were held.

After these elections, the new Prime Minister will be chosen by a majority vote of both houses of Parliament. The upper house, the Senate, will be entirely appointed by the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the name given to the military junta following the 2014 coup. A late decision to delay re-districting has also caused controversy.

Four political parties have significant support in opinion polls. The Pheu Thai, Forward Future and Democrat parties are broadly oppositional with the Phalang Pracharat being seen as a vehicle for former general and current Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha (pictured).

The main question will be whether the military allows the popular will of the people as expressed through the ballot box to prevail, or whether they seek to impose their chosen candidate as Prime Minister whatever the result.

 

  1. Ukraine: President (due 31st March) and Parliament (due end of October)

Old hands do battle once again as conflict rages in the East

ukraine-presidential-election-timelineHolding elections when a country is engaged in armed conflict is a testing proposition. Ukraine looks like it will be doing so twice in 2019. Crimea has been annexed by Russia and there are ongoing conflicts in the Donbass region which means polls won’t be held there. At the same time, large numbers of ethnic Russian citizens of Ukraine have fled the country. Since the country gained independence in 1991, Ukraine has seen two revolutions and the country has tilted decisively to a pro-western and nationalist standpoint. 

The Presidential election will pitch two old hands against each other with incumbent Petro Poroshenko up against former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. However, polls suggest that each of these candidates has high negative ratings and there are likely to be at least a dozen other contestants. You can expect this contest to go to a second round towards the end of April.

Six months later the country will go to the polls again in Parliamentary elections. A lot can and will change before then, but it is likely there will be no bloc with an overall majority.

Elections often see a ramping up in rhetoric and some heated conditions. In most countries that subsides very quickly with no lasting impact. Ukraine, however, might be a different case.

 

  1. Israel: Parliament (due 9th April)

Will Netanyahu win another term?

benjamin-netanyahuIsraeli elections are always complex matters. These early polls have been called after Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition suffered the loss of one of its partners. But the traditional opposition coalition has also fallen apart and so the main challenge will come from the Attorney General – who promises to reach a decision on indicting the PM on fraud bribery and breach of trust charges – and from former Army Chief of Staff Benny Gantz who has launched a new party.

The outcome of the election (which uses a national list system) will be one where no party is even close to a majority and so coalition negotiations will begin.

 

  1. South Africa: Parliament (due April)

ANC victory looks likely again, but will a genuine challenger emerge?

mg-elections-appWill this election finally see the end for the ANC? Probably not, but the party of Nelson Mandela is mired in corruption allegations and new president Cyril Ramaphosa is having a hard time keeping his party together. He faces challenges from the main opposition Democratic Alliance and the left wing EFF as well as a host of smaller parties.

The ANC still has a commanding lead in opinion polls and failure to win an overall majority would be a massive surprise. But the relative performance of the opposition parties could give an indication as to where the country is heading in the future.

 

  1. India: Parliament (due between April and May) 

Massive forces collide in the world’s biggest democracy

narendramodiIndia will vote this spring in an election that looks likely to produce a hung parliament. There will be 543 MPs elected in single member, first-past-the-post constituencies.

The ruling Hindu Nationalist BJP will head a thirteen party coalition known as the National Democratic Alliance. Their traditional opponents, the Congress Party, will head the United Progressive Alliance. Dozens of other parties and independent candidates will also contest the polls with alliances often based on local interests.

One of the key issues for outsiders will be the influence of fake news and social media in the election. Although the country is one of the world’s poorest, the number of smart phones has grown hugely since the last contest and a huge proportion of the population is said to use these as their main source of news. The spread of false information through social media platforms such as WhatsApp has been reported as being responsible for mob lynchings and parties have put a lot of effort into establishing pyramids for disseminating information about the campaign. As these are closed groups there is no systematic monitoring of what is being said.

 

  1. Australia: Senate and House (due by 18th May for half of the Senate and by 2nd November for the House of Representatives and Territory Senators)

Highly combative election with outcome in the balance

federal-electionAustralia is interesting for election watchers because of its use of compulsory voting (there are 22 countries which do so worldwide) and voting systems. The lower chamber – the 151 member House of Representatives – uses the Alternative Vote (AV or instant run off voting). This is a preferential system in single member seats so the elected representative will have been chosen by more than half of those who vote. The upper chamber, the Senate, has 76 members and is chosen by the single transferable vote (STV). However it is a bastardised form of STV where voters can choose to cast their vote for a party list in party preferred order (a single, simple tick ‘above the line’) or they have to indicate a preference for at least 60% of the potentially hundreds of candidates ‘below the line’.

The two main parties in the country are Labor and the Liberal-National coalition. The coalition held the majority under Premier Malcolm Turnbull until he was deposed as Prime Minister in 2018. He subsequently resigned his seat which was lost to an independent in the subsequent by-election. This also caused the coalition to lose its majority.

Current opinion polls have the two main groupings neck and neck on about 38% but with a marginal preference for the Labor Party in two party preference polling. The Greens are polling at about 9% with the populist One Nation Party on about 6% and others at about 10%.

Australia is a turbulent political environment and this campaign promises to be highly combative.

 

  1. Afghanistan: President (due 20th July)

Failures of liberal international order likely to be exposed again

300px-afghan_elections_2005Afghanistan highlights the truism that good intentions cannot make up for an absence of planning or understanding of local circumstances. The failure of the west to import a sustainable system of democracy into Afghanistan is, of course, mainly due to the civil war which has been on-going since the US started military action in 2001. But many are asking whether democratic politics will ever become the norm in the country.

There are currently ten declared candidates for the poll – all men – including incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his main challenger last time, the country’s chief executive Abdullah Abdullah.

The 2014 Presidential poll was mired by allegations of fraud. Parliamentary elections were held in 2018 but issues again arose with potential fraud. More than 20 million polling cards are in circulation for a voting age population of 12 million. As voters are permitted to cast their ballot in any polling station, the potential for fraud is high. During the parliamentary elections many polling stations opened late or not at all and there were widespread reports of violent attacks on election day.

 

  1. Canada: House of Commons (due October)

Blue eyed poster boy of the liberals faces his biggest challenge

trudeau-nomination-20180819Darling of the liberals, Justin Trudeau will face re-election in the autumn in a tough contest. He will be challenged from the right by the Conservatives who have recovered from their near fatal defeats of the early 2000’s and even led in opinion polls early last year. From the left will come the challenge of the NDP who are polling around 15%.

Also running will be the Bloc Quebecois who gained just ten seats last time and find it more difficult to challenege a charismatic Francophone in national elections. The party has also seen the majority of MPs left in protest at leader Martine Ouellet, before rejoining after she quit. The Greens mustered just one seat last time but have 5-8% of the polls and could deny the Liberals some seats just by running. The People’s Party, a populist right wing grouping established by a defecting Conservative MP, will also be contesting.

Trudeau has faced the realities of government since his election win four years ago. A number of manifesto commitments have fallen by the wayside – including a pledge to reform the first-past-the-post voting system – but his party still seems likely to be the largest grouping in the new parliament.

 

  1. Argentina: President and Parliament (due October)

How will South America’s second largest country react to Brazil’s rightward shift?

0028857735Argentina is one of a number of South American nations which will hold elections this autumn and is another country to feature compulsory voting with all those aged 18-70 required to cast a ballot. For those aged over 70, voting is not compulsory. Argentina also allows 16 and 17 year olds to vote – again it is not compulsory for this age group.

The President is elected for a four year term using a two round electoral system. To win in the first round the leading candidate must secure at least 45% of the votes cast or more than 40% and be at least 10% ahead of the next candidate. If neither of these conditions is satisfied then the top two candidates will go to a second round four weeks later.

In Parliament, the Chamber of Deputies is elected using a closed list system based on the provinces. 130 of the 257 seats are up for election this year for a four year period. The Senate is elected in thirds and this year eight provinces will elect three senators each. In each province two senators are won by the party gaining the most votes and one senator is won by the party finishing second.

The split nature of Parliamentary elections emphasises the supremacy of the Presidency within the Argentine constitution. President Mauricio Macri (pictured) has confirmed that he intends to run for a second term. One potential opponent will be Cristina Fernandez, his predecessor.

 

  1. Greece: Parliament (due October)

Will Tsipras be rewarded or ousted for Macedonia deal?

macedonia_greece_namedealAlexis Tsipras engaged in some very courageous political steps when he forged an agreement with Zoran Zaev, the Prime Minister of Macedonia to call a truce to the battle over the name of Greece’s northern neighbour. Controversial in both countries, the decision to recognise the Republic of North Macedonia opens up the prospect of the former Yugoslav republic joining both the EU and NATO.

But the cost paid by Tsipras for such an agreement may prove high. His coalition has fallen apart and the Macedonia deal has reinvigorated the opposition. The question is, will the voters reward his courage or punish him for a deal which pollsters say was opposed by two-thirds of Greeks. The election is not due until the autumn and an indicator may come with the Presidential poll this spring in North Macedonia. If voters there have forgiven Zaev, then maybe Greeks will do the same for Tsipras.

The Macedonia issue is not the only concern for voters of course. Immigration and the slowly recovering economy will also feature highly in the minds of electors as they go to vote.

 

  1. Poland: Parliament (due November)

A test for the European Right

200px-lech_i_maria_kaczynscyThe recent trend for populist and right-wing governments is exemplified in Europe by both Poland and Hungary. And whilst in Hungary Prime Minister Viktor Orban has steadily drifted rightwards whilst being in power, in Poland the Law and Justice (PiS) party gained power at the last election from their main opponents Civic Platform (PO). The two parties remain at the head of opinion polls with seven others hovering between 3 and 7%.

The election will be conducted by open list PR voting with a 5% threshold.

Over the last four years, the PiS has held an overall majority and has used this to make it more difficult for the Supreme Court to overturn government decisions and to give the government greater control over state TV and radio. These changes have led to protests by opposition parties. The question for voters is whether to consolidate the right wing government or drift back towards the centre.

Social media platforms must do more to prevent election attacks

It’s pretty clear that social media attacks have a real potential to affect not just elections, but political life in general. That’s why Facebook’s ‘two steps forward, one step back’ strategy is so disappointing. They – with their subsidiary WhatsApp – are the biggest players in the social media market and they have a responsibility to act. Only when platforms are completely transparent will election authorities be able to act and we, the voters, will have confidence that our elections are not being distorted.

How election regulations work

Different countries have different laws regarding elections and this applies to online campaigning and social media too. In most countries, the principle means of regulating election campaigns is via spending limits – although there may be a range of other controls. Parties and candidates are required to submit a spending return after the election (and sometimes interim returns mid-campaign). They may have to open a dedicated bank account and there may be limits as to who can contribute and how much.

Many countries view day to day non-commercial uses of social media as being essentially free and so they do not fall under the scope of election expenses. Even websites are often viewed as being low cost and are an under-regulated form of influencing votes.

Such ‘free’ uses include:

  • Setting up a Facebook page to promote a candidate or party and gather ‘likes’ for them. People who have ‘liked’ the candidate can then be sent messages and other information. Likers and other users can view live streams of campaign events
  • A twitter account to promote the candidate, to encourage retweets and to retweet others (endorsements, party leaders etc)
  • A WhatsApp account to create groups and to share information among those groups and encourage other group members to forward the information to others.
  • An Instagram account to share images and engage in conversation with followers and others.

There are, of course, many other social media platforms, but they broadly fall into one of these basic use profiles.

Increasingly, social media is also being used to host paid-for advertisements of a political or campaign nature during elections. These may come from parties or candidates themselves and can be positive or negative in nature. Or they can come from third party actors within the country or from outside. Different rules apply in each country with some countries permitting third party groups to spend money campaigning during an election either for or against a candidate or on the basis of issues. And whilst some countries permit funding by citizens living overseas, broadly speaking no country permits out of country election spending by non-citizens.

Why parties use social media

The advantage of social media advertising is that it allows an advert to be targeted at a specific audience. To take Facebook, the company knows enough about its users that it can sell advertising so that it reaches a very specific group. It is easy to target, for example, women aged 24-35 in a particular city. And, the company knows much more than simple demographics. They also know about an individual’s likes and dislikes (quite literally because of the ‘like’ buttons clicked). So Facebook can sell advertising enabling very precise targeting. And because the user data is not shared with the advertiser – they only receive personal information if the recipient of the advert chooses to share it with them – this practice is seen as compliant with data laws around the world.

The attractiveness of social media to parties, candidates and other political campaigners is obvious and not a bad thing. Lots of voters complain they don’t know enough about what politicians or parties stand for, so this means of communication should help. But a platform that allows genuine communication is also open to fake news and outside interference.

unnamedA disclaimer here: As a campaign manager in the 2016 EU referendum, I commissioned and paid for Facebook adverts on a number of occasions. I was able to define the audience I wanted to see these and I thought they were good value for money. I didn’t of course, have access to the private data that the platform used to target that audience. Our advert spending was properly declared to the Electoral Commission.

The Cambridge Analytica/AIQ case is something different. In this case data was harvested for one reason and then given or sold to political advertisers for completely different reasons. Facebook has been shown to have known about this illegal transfer to the extent that they have been fined the maximum amount permitted in the UK. But even if the company acted illegally in that case, it does not currently inhibit the legal act of selling advertising by Facebook and other social media companies.

Recent problems

There have been a number of scandals to hit election related social media in recent years:

  • During the 2016 UK referendum on membership of the EU the Electoral Commission found that the Vote Leave campaign illegally co-ordinated their campaigning with BeLeave by passing on funding which was spent on social media advertising;
  • During the 2016 US Presidential Election, it is alleged that Russia (and possibly China) sought to interfere with the contest through the promotion of fake news and the use of ‘bots’ to spread false information. (Other claims about Russian interference have been made but they don’t come under the heading of social media;
  • During the 2018 Brazillian Presidential Election, it is claimed that fake news aimed at both candidsates has been spread via WhatsApp groups;
  • During the 2018 Macedonian name referendum, it is alleged that many hundreds of websites, Facebook groups and other means were created from outside the country to promote a boycott and therefore to lessen the credibility of the outcome which was expected to be a Yes vote;
  • Allegations of foreign interference have also been made about French, German and other elections in Europe and elsewhere.

In addition to social media, voters may see election related content on news sites, gossip sites, blogs and so on. Frequently, these sites encourage interaction via comments and these are often un-moderated. Whilst parties can campaigns will endeavour to push messages out via these sites – as they do through mainstream media – the comments sections are often the territory where activists and others will seek to promote points of view and stories which are less factually robust.

So what action have Facebook taken?

They have made two significant changes which are broadly positive. They have required that every political advert carries a form of identification so the viewer can see who produced it. However this ‘imprint’ is often not as clear as one might like, providing little real clue as to who is behind it. A recent example are adverts urging constituents to contact therir MP and ‘stand up for Brexit’. A number or groups have produced these and some are clear whilst others are far from.

Second, Facebook will periodically release the details who who has spent what on political advertising. That’s great, but it won’t be linked to specific content.

They have also announced a ‘war room’ to tackle fake news during there EU elections.

On the downside, Facebook appears to have restricted the ability of plug-ins to monitor advertising content. This has hit the Who Targets Me platform even though the use of plug-ins in that case is entirely consensual. So one of the prime investigators of shady political advertising is no longer able to undertake its investigations.

And, as I’ve previously written, WhatsApp in India has restricted the ability for users to forward messages. However this make the spreading of fake news slightly harder rather than eliminating the possibility entirely.

Has fake news swung elections?

It’s impossible to tell. Governments do not like to admit that they might have come to power or their course of action might have been set via a referendum that was fundamentally flawed. And courts and election commissions have been very reticent in declaring a ballot to be void. That is not to say that it has never happened, but these remedies do not appear to be the most reliable.

Whilst in the past a second country (or people based in a second country) might have sought to influence the conduct of an election by means of radio broadcasts and the like, the advent of the internet, and particularly of social media, has made it much easier to seek to influence an election in another country whether through ‘fake news’ or truthful campaigning.

There is also a question as to how much a vote is actually changed by a piece of fake news. In most cases it appears that a voter is likely to cast their ballot in a certain way and the information they choose to listen to or accept (whether fake or otherwise) simply confirms their choice.

And what constitutes ‘fake’? An outright lie or doctored photo such as the one claiming that the former Brazillian President Dilma was a prodigy of Fidel Castro is simple to categorise. But the ‘£350m for the NHS’ slogan on the side of the Vote Leave bus during the UK’s referendum is not so obviously fake. Had politicians decided to do so, they could have made this come true, regardless of the impact of Brexit on public finances. It is fair to point out that the pretext of the claim – that Brexit would make the UK better off – is probably not the case, but we are then into a political debate – something that should not be policed in a heavy handed fashion, if at all.

However, it does seem probable that there have been significant numbers of votes affected by fake news or international campaigning in various elections and that this is something that should be taken seriously. Respected NGOs in various countries have raised concerns about this issue.

Next steps

Governments across the world have been reluctant even to address this issue. But some have and they have chosen different approaches. In the UK, ministers have said that recognising and ignoring fake news is the responsible of the individual. They don’t propose to take any action to stamp it out. France, however, has indicated that it might try to set up an official body to make rulings. The difficulty here is that such rulings are likely to come after the horse has well and truly bolted.

What seems logical as a first step is for platforms such as Facebook to be much more open about who is funding political advertising and what it says to whom. It is not necessarily for social media executives to do the work of electoral commissions, but they need to enable the official regulators to do their jobs properly. If an individual, organisation or even foreign country is trying to influence elections then this should be clear and, if it is against the law, then action should be taken. But until the social media platforms come clean, this can’t happen.