Reading List – 21st February 2020

Three staff of the American NGO NDI have been expelled from Togo. The three were accredited as election observers by the Togolese electoral commission and had been working with a non-partisan local group to help them plan domestic observation of the forthcoming presidential election.

 

As Iran heads to the polls today, CNN’s Luke McGee previews the election in which hardline candidates are set to dominate as many moderates were barred from running. However the bigger factor might be turnout.

 

 

Special polling stations will be set up so that Israelis who are quarantined will still be able to vote in the March 2nd general election.

 

 

Axios reports that President Trump has cut back on his spending on Facebook despite the platform abstaining from making policy changes that would hurt him. As social media platforms signalled they might change policies on political advertising, Trump lobbied Facebook hard not to restrict his ability to mictro-target. While his spending on Facebook adverts is still significant, it is now a much smaller proportion of his advertising budget having fallen from a monthly high of 72% to just 14% and most ads are aimed at increasing his private voter information lists.

 

Reading List – 19th February 2020

A deep fake video has been circulating in India ahead of regional elections. It purports to show BJP politician Manoj Tiwari criticising the regional government in a video targeted at a particular section of the population who speak the Haryanvi dialect of Hindi. We know it is a fake because the company that produced it has told us how they did it (and because the politician concerned doesn’t actually speak the language involved).

“In a country like India where digital literacy is nascent, even low-tech versions of video manipulation have led to violence. In 2018, more than 30 deaths were linked to rumours circulated on WhatsApp in India.”

Various solutions have been proposed, including banning deep fakes from being circulated within 60 days of an election. Such a plan is likely to fall foul of free speech advocates and comedians in many countries. But would a proposal such as that banning the distribution of manipulated political images be any better?

 

Another Vice article which contrasts the public words of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg with his company’s private lobbying efforts to prevent any meaningful regulation.

A senior US politician recently told me that he believes that significant electoral interference will continue to take place in America and around the world until regulation is introduced.

I’ve written recently that Facebook has failed to come up with a sensible vision for how regulation of political content on social media can work. This leaves it open to countries (or blocs like the EU) to regulate and, without an alternative vision, platforms will be in a weaker position to affect such changes.

 

Alix Boucher gives an overview of the coming contest and the concerns that election observers have over its fairness.

 

Chatham House’s Ryhor Astapenia argues that although Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka has succeeded in keeping his country somewhat distant from Russia, he has resisted reforms that would truly separate the economy from Russia’s and failed to implement significant reforms.

 

Facebook get their knickers in a twist over political ‘influencer’ policies

Facebook appear to be getting themselves into even more of a muddle with their political advertising rules after it emerged that paid for promotions by ‘influencers’ weren’t counting as adverts.

In the USA, Democratic Presidential hopeful Mike Bloomberg was found to be paying influencers to promote him. The promotions were tagged as sponsored, with Bloomberg’s name, but weren’t using Facebook’s ‘branded content’ tool because applying for this appeared to be optional.

The change that has been made is that accounts that run political adverts can now apply for this tool. But – and this is the bit that matters – these are still classed as ‘branded content’ and not adverts and so they do not show up in Facebook’s political adverts library. So we can’t be clear about who is running what and this may be a way of sidestepping campaign finance limits. That doesn’t matter (so much) in the USA, of course, but could be much more serious in countries with strict limits.

All this came to my attention thanks to Bridget Barrett (@bridgetobarrett on twitter) and Reform Political Advertising and who raise the following issues:

  • Political adverts aren’t subject to fact checking. But influencers would be. So what rules would apply to paid political promotions?
  • There are certain local rules which Facebook adheres to. One is the ban in Washington State on local and state political adverts. So would influencer branded content be banned there or not?

This latest mess is entirely of Facebook’s making as they are trying to react to what politicians are doing with their platforms. The company has failed to come up with a workable statement of policy regarding political speech and to drive that through at all levels. My suspicion is they are trying to get the 2020 US elections out of the way first. Mark Zuckerberg’s comments at the Munich Security Conference acknowledge that some sort of regulation is coming. But because Facebook is on the back foot, I suspect this will all get messier for the company rather than simpler.

Why not all election observation missions are equal

Azerbaijan’s election has been criticised by OSCE/ODIHR as failing to live up to many of the democratic commitments expected. However a wide range of other election missions have claimed the election was free and fair. So were they watching the same event?

OSCE/ODIHR (or, long-windedly, the Organisation for Security and Co-Operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights) is one of the largest and most respected players in the field of election observation (*). They have been fulfilling this role since the mid 1990s and have a settled methodology which means their observations follow a common pattern. They are by no means the only such organisation, but they are one of the best and certainly the most trusted to be operating in Azerbaijan.

Full observation missions have a core team of experts, long term observers based around the country watching the political campaign and administrative preparations and then a large number of short term observers who go from polling station to polling station on election day and report in a statistically significant manner. So when the ODIHR mission reports, it deserves to be listened to.

In the case of Sunday’s poll in Azerbaijan, ODIHR said:

“The restrictive legislation and political environment prevented genuine competition in the 9 February 2020 early parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, despite a high number of candidates. Some prospective candidates were denied the right to stand, but candidate registration process was otherwise inclusive. Voters were not provided with a meaningful choice due to a lack of real political discussion. Many candidates used social media to reach out to the voters, but this did not compensate the absence of campaign coverage in traditional media. Instances of pressure on voters, candidates and their representatives were observed. The election administration was well resourced and met legal deadlines, and the Central Election Commission made concerted efforts to act transparently and was welcoming towards international observers. However, significant procedural violations during counting and the tabulation raised concerns whether the results were established honestly.”

That’s the first paragraph of their preliminary statement and they go on, over the course of 19 pages, to explain and justify their findings. They will follow up with a final report and recommendations in about two months. What an OSCE/ODIHR mission does not do is summaraise its findings in a glib sentence. Every election has good and bad points and the nuances matter – even if this is frustrating for journalists who want to boil it down to ‘free and fair’ (or not).

There were, reportedly, 56 international missions on the ground in Azerbaijan. Just because I believe OSCE/ODIHR to be credible based on its experience and methodology, doesn’t mean that it is the only mission that should be listened to. And others might, genuinely, have come up with alternative views. However, it is important when assessing any observation report to consider questions such as:

  • How many observers did a mission have?
  • Did they have a settled methodology that allowed an objective assessment?
  • Did the mission have a long term presence or was it just there for election day?
  • How was the mission funded?
  • Did the mission conduct observations across the entire country? If not, how did they decide where to observe?
  • How did observers choose which polling stations to observe and were they accompanied by government or election commission ‘minders’?
  • How long did observers spend in each location?
  • Did they attempt to observe the count and tabulation process?

Of course, a genuine and independent observation mission might not be able to tick every single box, but they will be clear about the extent of their observations and not over-reach.

We have seen many authoritarian regimes make use of multiple observation missions in recent years to try to dampen down the impact of the more credible missions. These might include friendly governments who operate on a quid pro quo basis – ‘we will give the all clear to your elections and you do the same for us in the future’. Typically such missions might claim to have large numbers of observers but they actually do very little work. I came across one group who spent no more than 5 minutes in any polling station – and most of that posing for pictures.

The other favoured tactic is to invite small groups of international luminaries. For one recent election, the country’s embassy in the UK issued invitations to many MPs and academics with an interest in the country to visit (expenses paid) for election day and to say publicly what they saw. Such observers might think themselves objective, but going at the expense of the government presents a massive conflict of interest, exacerbated when you are reliant on the same government to ferry you around and (effectively) to pick the polling stations you are able to see. The chances of being taken to ‘Potemkin’ polling stations is extremely high and your hosts will ensure that there are cameras present at every turn to ask you about what you saw. Credible observers will speak as a single voice for the entire mission and only once they have been able to consider the wider picture, rather than being bounced into saying how friendly and smooth everything is at the first stop of the day.

Perhaps the most galling instance in the Azerbaijan election was when one accredited international observer turned up to the OSCE/ODIHR press conference to give a totally misleading spin on the report being launched. There is no indication of exactly how this person came to be in Azerbaijan, but he was not part of the ODIHR team.

I’ve looked at a few other organisations who were present in Azerbaijan and who got extensive press coverage and found:

  • Many of them have issued no formal statement – merely held a press conference to praise the conduct of the polls (such as this one);
  • Others were tiny missions which visited only a few polling stations in the capital (such as this one)
  • And still others pre-judged the elections by issuing ‘clean bills of health’ before polls had even closed (such as this one)

I suspect that this will be an on-going battle in the years to come. Respectable missions will carry on trying to do their job and report accurately on what they find. Meanwhile, other groups will be making lots of noise in order to dampen coverage of the objective groups.

*Disclaimer – I am proud to work for OSCE/ODIHR observation missions on a regular basis.

Online Harms – how does the UK government plan to address election interference?

The UK government has set out a plan to give media regulator Ofcom more powers to regulate internet companies. The talk is about forcing platforms to hold a ‘duty of care’ for their users. We don’t yet know many of the details, and the term online harms covers a vast swathe of activities from child protection to terrorism, but we also know that the government has previously viewed interference with elections as one of the online harms that needs addressing.

So what is an online harm when it comes to electoral integrity and how could internet companies police such threats?

The first is interference with the electoral process itself. In this case, the UK’s adherence to paper and pencil voting and counts taking place in a single venue for each constituency actually helps. If we used electronic voting machines, or voted via the internet, then these might be open to manipulation. The only instance where the process is open to such manipulation is when scanning is used to count the votes in elections such as the mayor of London. So there needs to be confidence that the scanners and their software is secure and accurate and consideration needs to be given to having at least a sample of the paper ballots hand counted by hand.

The next key area is disinformation (or fake news). Should platforms like Facebook ensure that such posts are not altering the course of the election? 

To date the government has been keen to stress that it should be up to voters to decide for themselves what is truthful and what is not when it comes to electoral propoganda. Political adverts are exempt from the ‘legal, decent and honest’ requirements of, say, washing powder adverts. So politicians can say whatever they want on social media or their own websites. (Of course, the government could change their minds and require truthfulness, but this would mean establishing some sort of board to decide on truthfulness and a whole host of other issues.)

Just because the government doesn’t require it doesn’t stop the platforms having their own rules governing political speech. Facebook is the most open, allowing politicians to do and say what they want. They exempt political adverts from fact-checking and have said they are in favour of free speech and allowing voters to decide what is true or not. At the other end of the scale, Twitter has banned political adverts but still allows politicians to say whatever they want in organic tweets. And in the middle comes Google which has restricted the targeting allowed for adverts, but still allows things such as a banner advert which directed users to a site called labourmanifesto.co.uk – which turned out to be a Conservative party advert.

Platform policies are pretty much worldwide. So the UK government’s new initiative will throw down a gauntlet in the shape of a challenge to create UK service conditions reflective purely of UK laws. That has happened in other countries, but the platforms (and US government) have complained bitterly. Such laws have yet to be fully tested in the courts so we wait to see how the platforms will react.

Where the UK government may choose to act would be in the areas of user identification and financial probity. Electoral participation in the UK is limited to UK individuals and companies, and there are limits to the amount that can be spent. So it may be that the government chooses to impose new burdens on internet companies to ensure that only legal contributions can be made and that those responsible for adverts are clearly identifiable. This would take the form of clear ‘imprints’ and an open library to see who has produced what and at what cost.

Finally there is the issue of foreign interference. With participation limited to UK individuals and companies, what action might be proposed to prevent interference from those based overseas – either to seek to advantage a particular candidate or just to create disinformation and confusion?

To this end, crossbench peer Lord Cromwell (*) has tabled a question in the House of Lords:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, given the “real danger that hostile actors use online disinformation to undermine” the UK’s “democratic values and principles” outlined in their Online Harms White Paper, published in April 2019, what steps they plan to take to empower the proposed independent regulator to require online platforms to take down such material that may be perceived to have an impact on an electoral contest; and what guidance they plan to give to that regulator about how any such decision should be reached.

Of course the government may think election interference should be the responsibility of another body, not Ofcom. Or they may think that there should be no regulation or protection in this area – although that would contradict their main decision and they would have to explain why. We await the further details.

 

* Disclosure – Lord Cromwell manages many UK observer secondments to OSCE/ODIHR international election observation missions on behalf of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office and has employed me in this role.

Reading List – 7th February 2020

1. Dictators in Trouble

Thomas Carothers writes that it is not just democracies that are losing popularity among their citizins. There are numerous examples of autocratic regimes where citizens have demanded change.

 

2. A More Democratic Country

Joe Mitchell has written a fine piece about how the UK needs to examine and re-invigorate its democracy. He suggests that it would be a good idea if the Government’s “Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission” included at least a part which was handed over to some form of citizens’ convention to examine what we want from democracy and how the government could go about delivering and securing it.

Canada, in its general election last year, had plans in place in case various forms of interference in the process were attempted. Why does the UK not have a similar plan?

And how do we measure the health of democracy in this country (or anywhere). It isn’t as simple as turnout. But what else could be included in such a metric?

 

3. Democracies under pressure

Continuing the theme, the American NGO IRI has produced a series of essays on the issue of democracies under pressure. I’d particularly recommend the essays on digital giants (one of my own recurring themes) and on trusts and mistrust in democratic societies.

 

4. If denuclearization is a fantasy, what can North Korean negotiations achieve?

Eli Levite and Toby Dalton explain that even if President Trump’s hopes of a big deal with North Korea are no longer feasible, there might be a point to continued dialogue. This would require realistic goals and a change in approach, however.

 

Social media and elections – an update

I’ve written a fair amount over the past year about the problems social media companies face with regard to elections and political posts. You can find examples here, here and here.

In short, the argument is that these companies are massively powerful and can have a huge influence on elections. They have chosen different paths with Twitter banning political adverts, Google restricting the targeting that is allowed for such adverts and Facebook regarding the matter as one of free speech and therefore not really making any changes. Plus there is the problem that all companies are working on the basis of a single worldwide policy which pays no regard to the individual laws that might be applicable in the different countries they operate in.

There have been a few updates in recent weeks:

  • Wired has an article which explains the new Facebook Board, a group of people operating at arms length from the platform who will take the final decision on content moderation. As the article points out, they are almost certain to hear a case on false statements in political adverts and, whilst their rulings don’t automatically set a precedent, it may well be that this is the start of a process that leads to a change in policy.
  • Facebook has also updated its political ad library to make it more transparent and given users the option of seeking fewer political adverts in the future.
  • This decision is not without its critics. In the US, many political consultants – used to being able to rely on Facebook’s micro-targeting functions – have suggested that the ability of users to limit the political adverts they see could make campaigning harder. They have produced a report, which it seems Facebook is looking closely at, suggesting ways forward. However, as with so many concerns in the past, this is a purely US campaign industry solution which doesn’t take account of worldwide issues.
  • Twitter came under fire following a BBC exposé which showed that adverts could be targeted at extreme groups such as neo-Nazis. The platform has pledged to ban such adverts in the future.