Rise of WhatsApp fuels concerns about Indian elections

The rise in the use of different types of social media in elections has proved both advantageous for parties and worrying for those concerned about the cleanliness of elections.

Different platforms are to the fore in different countries with Facebook the most common app in much of the world. However in India and elsewhere it is WhatsApp that is in the lead. And despite new curbs on the forwarding of messages, its use is deeply concerning to those worried about the spread of fake news.

The advantage of all social media is that they can be used to disseminate information to voters. Parties use them to spread information about their policies and candidates. But they can also be used to spread false information and the end-to-end encryption of WhatsApp means it is almost impossible to know what individual users are seeing.

In India the information being spread is often fake and designed to enflame religious or caste conflict. Groups can contain up to 256 members and Time is reporting that parties are using volunteers to forward messages from group to group. In the past each message could be forwarded to 20 individuals or groups. New rules restrict this to just 5 but this appears to have done little to curb the spread of fake news.

The ownership of smart phones has almost doubled in the five years since the last election and more than four out of five have WhatsApp installed.

Time reports that political messaging is tailored to religion and caste – often easy to do simply by name – and that lax data laws mean that list brokers can offer information such as electricity bills to parties. Higher bills are likely to indicate middle class households with air conditioning.

While parties themselves are unlikely to put their name to inflammatory material, this doesn’t stop baseless claims being spread by supporters and influencers via political groups. The governing Hindu nationalist BJP is said to be in the lead in such tactics, but other parties including the opposition Congress are also using the platforms.

Greek Parliament backs Macedonia name change

After much debate, and fears that the initiative would be lost, the Greek Parliament has voted narrowly to approve the name change for its northern neighbour. And so the Republic of North Macedonia will come into being and have access to both NATO and the EU.

This process started last summer with an agreement between Prime Ministers Zoran Zaev of Macedonia and Alexis Tsiparas of Greece. A referendum in Macedonia passed with a massive majority, but a boycott by opponents meant the turnout did not pass the threshold set for automatic acceptance.

Nevertheless, the Macedonian parliament passed the measure and the only hurdle remaining was a similar vote in the Greek Parliament. Tsiparas’ coalition partners left the government over the issue and around 60% of Greeks are said by opinion polls to be opposed to the name. They believe that it impinges on the northern Greek province of Macedonia and implies territorial ambitions.

Greece had been blocking Macedonia’s applications to join NATO and the EU over the issue, and part of the agreement is that these vetoes will be dropped.

The only question that remains is how much damage this will do to Tisparas as he faces a general election later this year.

Facebook rolls out new political ad rules

Facebook has announced that it is rolling out new rules on the use of its platform for political advertising in some of the countries with elections due this year. This is just one of the developments to take place on this issue in recent days.

Reuters reports that beginning on Wednesday in Nigeria, only advertisers located in the country will be able to run electoral ads, mirroring a policy unveiled during an Irish referendum last May.

The same policy will take effect in Ukraine in February. Nigeria holds a presidential election on Feb. 16, while Ukraine will follow on March 31.

In India, which votes for parliament this spring, Facebook will place electoral ads in a searchable online library starting from next month.

The library will resemble archives brought to the United States, Brazil and Britain last year.

However, policies in different countries will vary and  with more than 100 national and international elections taking place in 2019, it appears that Facebook will not be tightening up the rules in every case. Even in large democracies such as  Australia, Indonesia, Israel and the Philippines, Facebook is still deciding what to do. If voters in these countries cannot be sure that the network will introduce transparency rules in time for their votes, how long will it take for the company to reach Macedonia or Bolivia – two more countries which have votes this year.

In other news, Likud has said that it will block Israeli attempts to stop dubious online campaigning in the forthcoming general election. This is despite claims by Shin Bet that another country is planning to try to disrupt the elections. Accusations have previously been levelled at Likud’s use of online campaigning.

And in the UK, the organisation Full Fact has announced that it will start factchecking Facebook posts. This will not be specifically targeted at political or election content but will include such content.

EPDE booklet on politically biased election observation

The European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE) has launched a new paper looking at political bias in election observation. EPDE is a joint grouping aimed at strengthening the quality of election observation in Eastern Europe, Russian Federation and European Union.

The paper suggests that a number of elections have seen independent and biased observers recruited in order to dampen the impact of larger or more legitimate missions either for domestic or international consumption.

The paper suggests that politically biased observers do not adhere to international codes of conduct or observation methodologies and/or are made up of people with predisposed views in favour of the incumbent regime.

You can read the paper here.

Leaked data shows Fayulu ‘won’ DRC election

The Financial Times has a scoop with two leaked datasets from the election in DRC. These purport to show the results from individual polling stations with one of the files being data from more than 80% of the voting machines in use in the country.

The data shows that Martin Fayulu – who was declared to have come second in the poll – actually won with 59.4% of the vote. The declared winner Felix Tshisekedi had 19% of the vote and the candidate endorsed by outgoing President Kabila, Emmanuel Shadary gaining 18%.

This dataset is said to be very close to the numbers collected by the Catholic Church in the country which had 40,000 observers on the ground on election day.

The irony noted by the FT is that this dataset comes from voting machines that opposition activists condemned as likely to increase the chance of the vote being rigged.

Mr Fayulu has lodged an appeal against the result with the courts in DRC.

UPDATE: The African Union has said that it has serious doubts over the veracity of the result and has urged the electoral commission of DRC to delay making it official. In a statement, the AU said:

The Heads of State and Government agreed to urgently dispatch to the DRC a high-level delegation comprising the Chairperson of the Union and other Heads of State and Government, as well as the Chairperson of the AU Commission, to interact with all Congolese stakeholders, with the view to reaching a consensus on a way out of the post-electoral crisis in the country.

Greek Government splits over Macedonia name change (Updated)

The junior partner in the Greek government has walked out of the coalition in protest at the proposal to recognise the change in the name of their northern neighbour to ‘The Republic of Northern Macedonia’.

The name change – which would solve one of the thorniest of European issues – has so far survived all of its hurdles. Even after the referendum in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia fell short of the required turnout threshold, the issue was revived thanks to a positive vote in the country’s parliament. Greek support will also allow Macedonia to apply for membership of the EU and NATO.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras has championed the move but will now face a massive challenge with the main opposition also rejecting the idea of supporting the name change.

UPDATE 17th January: PM Tsiparas won a vote of confidence on 16th January which, whilst not the formal vote supporting the name change of their neighbour to the north, at least paves the way for a positive resolution.

DRC election ‘loser’ lodges court appeal as neighbouring countries call for recount

African nations have called for a recount in the controversial Presidential election in Democratic Republic of Congo and the candidate who was declared to have come second has launched a court challenge to the result.

The Guardian reports:

Sunday’s statement from the Southern African Development Community, which includes 16 states, notes the “strong doubts cast on the poll outcome by the … church, the opposition coalition and other observers” and calls for a recount “to provide the necessary reassurance to both winners and losers”. The organisation also suggested “a negotiated political settlement for a government of national unity”.

There was good news for the outgoing President Joseph Kabila as parties loyal to him won a majority in the 500 seat Parliament meaning that, whoever is eventually declared the winner of the Presidential poll, he will still have strong influence on the running of the country.

The same paper also has an earlier article looking at the state of elections in Africa as the continent prepares to host more than 20 national polls this year.