Who Targets Me launch ten rules to guide online political adverts – and they are good!

Who Targets Me is a campaign group that aims to lift the veil from online political advertising. They have developed a plug-in which people can volunteer to use which means the group can see who is receiving targeted political adverts on social media. Because of the targeting, it is often very difficult for anyone who has not been sent the advert directly to see it.

The group is also campaigning to institute better rules to govern the conduct of political advertising. You may well have seen my posts and thoughts about the need for better rules, and I like what WTM have done with their thoughts.

I would encourage you to read the full post here, but I’m going to take the liberty of posting the rules they advocate and a bit of their thinking below.

In essence, the group believes that it would be wrong to have some form of officially appointed regulator or online adverts. Such a body would be expensive, slow and only able to handle a tiny percentage of the adverts published each year. In addition, their decisions would become politically contentious.

Instead, they are proposing rules which would reduce the way in which advertising can be abused, preserve freedom of expression and targeting and preserve public confidence. Their ten ideas are:

  • Collaborate to define what is ‘political’.
  • Require maximum transparency for political advertising.
  • Force strong verification.
  • Make advertisers earn the ‘right’ to advertise.
  • Allow fewer ads.
  • Make ‘ads’ ads again.
  • Introduce a blackout period for political advertising.
  • Ensure these measures are ‘always on’.
  • Enforce the rules and increase the penalties for breaking them.
  • Update the rules regularly, transparently and accountably.

In their article they list the reasoning for each of these proposals and again I would encourage you to read the whole thing.

 

 

Reading List – 12th June 2020

Twitter has disclosed more than 32,000 accounts which have been part of three state backed schemes to promote disinformation and acting in an inauthentic manner. These accounts are said to be part of state sponsored operations and existed in China, Russia and Turkey.

The 1,152 Russian accounts were said to be promoting the ruling United Russia party and denigrating rivals. The Turkish accounts were engaged in similar activity related to the AK Parti.

Twitter’s opening line of their press release is particularly interesting. They state:

“Today we are disclosing 32,242 accounts to our archive of state-linked information operations — the only one of its kind in the industry.”

That Twitter should have such an archive is welcome. But it seems a shame that other platforms do not and that there is not an industry-wide archive. A similar case can (and has) been made for a multi-platform library of political adverts. Combatting improper and illegal behaviour on social media cannot be undertaken on a platform by platform basis.

 

 

RFE/RL reports apparent confirmation that Moldovan oligarch Vlad Plahotniuc has been hiding out in Moldova.

Plahotniuc was the power behind the Democratic Party and fled in June 2019 after a joint action by Russia, Europe and the USA to try to end the corruption that was endemic under his regime. It has been claimed that he stole more than $1bn, the equivalent to roughly one eighth of the Moldovan economy. 

Plahotniuc apparently made his way to the USA where his request for asylum was rejected and he was ordered to be deported. That deportartion has not happened yet however and it is claimed that he has multiple passports and identities.

 

The Carnegie Moscow Center seems to be going all in on President Putin at the moment. Tatiana Stanovaya argues that Covid-19 and the fall in the oil price have exposed the holes in the Russian regime, whilst Alexander Baunov says that Putin has gone missing during the crisis.

 

Another Carnegie piece, this time looking at the electoral challenges faced by Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus.

Twitter fact-checks Trump: labels postal voting claims as false

Twitter has taken both a huge and a tiny step in deciding to tag President Trump’s tweets about postal voting in California with a link to a fact-checking page. It is huge because this is the first time that any social media platform has even come close to censoring the President when he makes false statements and because it appears to go against Twitter’s own ‘free speech for politicians’ policy.

Screen Shot 2020-05-27 at 09.29.00

But it is also tiny because it is merely a link to another page, a tag applied many hours after the original tweets. And as the Guardian and others have shown, the link doesn’t appear in some cases if you reproduce the tweet elsewhere.

That Twitter should choose to make this decision for posts about elections is not that surprising. The company has singled out attempts at “manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes” for special attention. That said, the platform failed to act when President Trump made false statements claiming that Michigan would be sending a ballot to every voter by mail (they are merely sending a postal vote application – something done by many Republican states). It might be cynical to look at the company taking action when the tweets are about their home state of California as being significant, but there you are.

The tweets in question are a repetition of the sort of thing the President said in the Michigan case – that the state would be sending ballot papers to anyone living in the state, even if they are illegal immigrants (that bit is implied) and that state officials would then tell people how to vote. Each aspect is clearly false. The linked fact checking page is pretty good – it aggregates a range of journalists and others explaining why the President’s statements are not correct. How many of the President’s followers will actually read it remains to be seen however.

Predictably, the President is claiming that this action has infringed his right to free speech, and that he ‘will not allow it to happen’ despite platforms having the right under federal law to decide how to moderate what appears. His campaign manager Brad Parscale claimed that this justified his decision to end Trump’s advertising on Twitter, despite the platform itself taking the decision to end all political advertising in 2019, something the Trump campaign at the time complained was biased.

My own view is that I do not believe that Twitter would have taken this decision if it were to be a one-off. They will be generating a huge backlash which will only be justified if they really intend to push on and have a similar form of fact-checking for future statements by Trump and other candidates. Whether they will limit their actions to tweets about elections or spread the net further will be closely watched. In the meantime, it is also a shot across the bows for Facebook which has refused to allow its third-party fact-checkers to critique the posts of politicians and other world leaders.

Russia’s remote voting proposals will lessen transparency and trust

In an already controlled environment, the latest moves to change electoral systems in Russia have the potential to further tighten the grip of the Kremlin. A Bill to enable candidate registration signatures to be collected via the state services app has been amended at the last minute to allow remote voting via a number of means. It passed the Duma (the lower house of parliament) after lawmakers were given just 36 minutes to see the proposed amendments. Covid-19 restrictions limited the amount of media and public scrutiny that was possible of the procedings.

What appears to have emerged from the process is a Bill that will allow for the development of internet voting, for postal voting and to expand the range of people who are qualified to vote at home on election day. In addition, for health reasons, voting will now be allowed in the precincts of the polling station as well as the voting room itself.

There is an axiom that any time you take the ballot paper out of the control of election officials, that vote becomes less secure and more susceptible to fraud. These new measures all remove the oversight that election administrators – and observers – will have over the process. It is perhaps no wonder that Russia’s leading independent election observation group – Golos – have said of the changes: 

“Their implementation without simultaneously ensuring guarantees of effective control will increase the level of distrust of citizens in elections.”

To take the changes one by one:

Internet Voting

Internet voting is often seen as the solution to many election problems. In the UK it was trialed as a response to declining turnout in the early 2000s. But just because someone tells a pollster that they are more likely to vote if they can do so from home via the internet, doesn’t mean they will actually do so. TV programmes which use internet voting have many hours of positive broadcast coverage and still only get a small proportion of their audience to vote.

As I have written before, internet voting is doubly problematic. First in that it takes the vote out of the polling station. Second, that it is reliant on ‘black box technology’ so the voter cannot see directly how their vote contributes to the result and there is no paper trail. If some malign actor, either within the election commission or hacking in from outside, wanted to fix the result then it is far more possible with internet voting and almost impossible to prove.

The only country which successfully uses internet voting for national elections is Estonia which has spent many millions (in a very small country) on security. This includes a reader for every household so that voters can insert their national identity card to be validated. Even then, I would argue, it is not completely secure as other members of the household could vote using a person’s card – particularly if they are vulnerable or disinclined to vote. And the chances of pressurized voting are obvious.

Postal Voting

Postal votes have been the subject of many election fraud cases around the world. It is not quite true to assert, as President Trump does, that all postal voting is riddled with fraud. But postal votes are subject to many of the risks of other forms of remote voting.

Where a person cannot make it to vote on election day, postal votes can be a good thing. In the UK we used to have a ‘for cause’ system which meant you needed a valid reason for asking for one. Now we operate an ‘on demand’ system. This avoids the need to tie up doctors and employers and for election administrators to deal with lots of paperwork.

Where the UK – and others – have largely failed is when they seek to adopt universal postal voting – ie every voter is sent a postal vote to their registered address. I have dealt with such issues here. In short, if a person is not aware that their vote is being sent by post then it is easy to abstract and cast illegally. Switzerland is a country where all-postal ballots do work well, but is a very different electoral culture.

In order to have an effective postal vote system, a country needs to have a means of verifying that the application and the resultant vote come from the registered voter. You don’t want to allow others to apply and then vote on your behalf. This means having lots of staff, lots of time and specialist signature matching software. My experience of the Russian system is that the elections staff are generally pretty well trained and motivated, but they are short staffed and would need a significant increase in their budgets and allocation of high quality hardware from local administrations which are often reluctant to let them have anything other than the oldest computers.

Traditionally, Russia has sought to address the problem of people being away from home on election day by allowing ‘place of stay’ voting. This system, managed by the state services app, allows a voter to move their polling station up to a couple of days before the election. If you are away from home on business or an economic migrant, you can simply change where you vote to a local station. And there are special polling stations created in hospitals and railway stations, and even on ice-breakers and at the Antarctic Research Station. So with all these options, are postal votes really needed?

Early Voting

Early voting has been used for some time in a number of countries. It is not the most susceptible to fraud as it still requires the voter to attend a polling station (their own or a central hub) where they are dealt with by election administrators in the same manner as on election day. However, it can stretch the resources of party and other observers who are there to ensure that nothing untoward happens. And it can make it easier for the same voter to cast multiple ballots by going from polling station to polling station.

Home Voting

Home voting has been the traditional means by which Russia allows those who cannot come to a polling station on election day to vote. It has always been restricted to the old and people with disabilities and requires an application by the elector which is then adjudicated by the polling station committee. If approved, then on election day a subset of the committee, plus observers, takes a small version of the ballot box to the home of the voter. Although in most cases this is a workable solution, it requires the intrusion into the voter’s home of up to eight people and it is often difficult to ensure the secrecy of the vote.

The proposal now is to allow carers as well as those being cared for to vote in this way. That may seem a logical step, but simply extends the problem, I would suggest.

Precinct Voting

The proposal is to allow voters to cast their ballots not just in the confines of the polling booths, but also within designated areas within the precincts of the polling station building – in courtyards, for example. This is being done, it is claimed, for health reasons.

Fairly obviously, loss of secrecy is a big problem with this proposal. If people are wandering around with their ballot then it can be seen by others. In my experience in Russia at least one third of voters do not bother to fold their ballot after completion. 

I don’t know whether there will be polling booths set up in the courtyards where voting will be allowed, but the chances are that these will be as unpopular as those in the officisl voting room if there is a fear of Covid-19.

Perhaps the other major problem is that election officials and observers will find it difficult to track what is happening. This makes frauds such as carousel voting, illicit pressure, family voting and proxy voting all more easy to achieve.

On the other hand…

I certainly would not suggest that the Russian voting system is in the dark ages. The place of stay voting system is very good indeed and deserves to be studied by many supposedly advanced democracies. And the state services portal makes it possible to accomplish a lot of tasks related to the elections process in a simple and speedy manner. That’s a boon to voters as well as to the state. If there were to be a form of internet voting then this might well be the basis for such a system.

That said, however, it is clear that the changes being developed as a result of this Bill are not going to make the Russian system more secure and will actually do only a little to enhance access to voting. Fundamentally, they open the way for those who wish to rig the vote to do so. Citizen confidence in elections stems from knowing that votes are cast freely and that the result is an accurate counting of only legitimate votes. Sadly I think that this Bill takes Russia away from those principles.

Reading List – 15th May 2020

Apologies for not having done one of these for a while…

 

Dmitri Trenin of Carnegie’s Moscow Center argues that Russia could be squeezed out of a new bipolar world where everything comes down to the USA and China. And while this may be a relief to some in sanctions-affected Russia, he argues that the risk is that Russia loses relevance.

 

In Time Magazine, David Miller argues that just because Netanyahu can annex parts of the West Bank doesn’t mean he will.

 

Nana Kalandadze of International IDEA looks at the aborted attempt to hold an all-postal ballot in Poland last weekend.

 

Russia proposes postal and internet voting for ‘national vote’

(UPDATE: See additional notes below)

Russia is proposing to allow voting by mail or online in the ballot due to take place to approve the changes to the constitution proposed by Vladimir Putin back in January. The vote was due to take place in April but was postponed by the Covid-19 pandemic. No new date has yet been set.

President Putin is widely felt to want the vote to take place sooner rather than later but there is understandable concern that voters may not want to go to the polls if it is held while people are still catching and dying from coronavirus. Hence the move to allow people to vote from home.

Russia has previously made big efforts to ensure everyone can vote in elections. During the 2018 Presidential elections I witnessed the promotion of the ‘place of stay’ voting system which enabled any registered voter to move their polling station, reflecting where they actually lived or would be on election day, rather than their official address. This could be done on paper, but most people did so using the “Unified Portal of State and Municipal Services” – an app which is genuinely easy to use and which covers most state and local services. Russia also created a range of special polling stations in hospitals, railway stations and even icebreakers to ensure that those who would be away from their registered address could still have their say.

The country also allows people to register to vote at home. This is used mainly by the very old and people with disabilities. It is a relatively common system in the former Soviet states, but it is cumbersome as it requires members of the polling station team – as well as observers – to enter the voter’s home on Election Day. Until now, Russia has not had a system of postal voting, nor, of course, of internet voting.

Setting up such systems is complex. There is no simple ‘off the shelf’ model. As we have seen in the USA and in Poland (although the latter election was abandoned with four days to do), you cannot simply state that everyone can vote by mail and expect it to happen without a flaw. The postal service needs to have the capacity and knowledge and there needs to be some sort of mechanism to make sure that the vote reaches and is completed by the right person. Having signatures or other personal identifiers on file – and a computer system able to accurately verify them – is needed. Plus, as soon as you take the ballot outside the polling station, the risks of coercion increase.

In the case of internet voting, the good news for Russia is the state services portal. This could provide a gateway for an online balloting procedure. But there is still a long way between having that portal and being able to use it for a ballot that voters can trust to remain secret and secure. The only country in the world that uses internet voting for national elections is Estonia, which has invested a very large amount in security hardware to make sure the right person is voting.

For all these reasons, ODIHR recommended in the case of Poland that significant changes should not take place less than 6 months before the election is due. That recommendation would surely apply for Russia as well.

To date all we have is a law passed by the Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament. It must still go to the upper house, the Electoral Commission and the President, but it seems unlikely to change much. The details of how it might work are still to be made public and it might be that this remains an aspiration rather than a reality. But it will be a development that will be closely monitored by elections analysts both in Russia and elsewhere.

UPDATE: Kommersant reports that, contrary to what was initially reported, remote voting will not be allowed for the national vote on the constitutional changes. Given the conflicting reports, I am looking to get clarity. However, if Kommersant is right then there is still the likelihood that Russia is looking to move to online and postal voting for future elections – possibly as soon as this autumn’s regional or next year’s Duma polls. That still presents a big logistical challenge for the state.

Social Media platforms are moderating Covid-19 content and should learn lessons for elections

Social media platforms have been very quick to act to limit the spread of false information about Covid-19 on their platforms. And they have gone further by prioritising content provided by expert sources within their algorithm.

So if they can do it for Covid-19, why can’t they do it in other areas such as elections? Why do platforms such as Facebook still insist on ‘letting users judge truth for themselves’.

So when it comes to elections and political issues, Facebook hands over control to third-party fact-checking organisations. They have limited powers and even smaller budgets. They can’t for instance, get involved in the the statements made by elected leaders or candidates. So if President Trump were to say something false on the platform then it would have to stand with the public left to decide for themselves whether it is true or not. Facebook claims that political statements often cannot be judged to be 100% true or 100% false and so it would be wrong of them to try to adjudicate.

And yet when it comes to the virus, there are many supposed facts fighting for attention. Issues such as whether you can catch the disease more than once, how much good facemasks do and whether children can catch or spread the disease are key. And there have been scientists on either side of the debate on each of these, with opinion shifting over time. Yet the platforms are promoting one side of the argument over the other in each of these cases based on what officials such as the WHO and CDC are saying. It cannot only be me who sees a double standard when it comes to the way the virus is treated compared with climate change?

Robyn Caplan at the Brookings Institute makes the point that there is a difference between moderation and mediation. She suggests that it is not just a matter of taking down the fake news, but of trying to understand the truth in a complicated scientific world

Most of us would accept that, when it comes to Covid-19, there is a difference in the knowledge held by Chris Whitty on the one hand and Jo Bloggs down the street on the other, and so it is right that the platforms use their algorithms to make sure we are more likely to see the former than the latter. But with election related material they do not. Indeed, the algorithms go out of their way to reinforce prejudice by promoting content from people like us and people we agree with and reducing the likelihood of us seeing any fact check or an opposing point of view. There is little in the way of debate in your Facebook feed.

Just as with electoral manifestos, there are areas of genuine debate about the virus that social media platforms do not, and should not, get involved with. How lockdown should be implemented and then lifted is a political decision. We can debate it online as much as we do in real life. And even though the science is more determined, it is not exactly agreed with by 100% of the scientists. You only have to look at the outcomes from the government’s SAGE group and the unofficial alternative. But the platforms are prepared to wade into this debate because they know it is their public responsibility to do so.

The UK government has delayed its Online Harms Bill again and today the minister refused to deny that it could be 2023 before it is enacted. With that much time available, surely it is right that the government here at least looks at the opportunities to require the platforms to take the lessons they have learned from Covid-19 and apply them to areas such as elections too.

Facebook names their first board members – they have a lot to do

Facebook has picked the first members of its new oversight board which will guide company policy on issues to do with free speech. The line-up so far is impressive (but you would expect that from Facebook). The question is whether this group will be able to wield enough power to change company policy.

Among the four co-chairs of the group is Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the former prime minister of Denmark. She is joined by two US law professors, Jamal Greene and Michael McConnell, and Catalina Botero Marino, a former special rapporteur for freedom of expression at the Organization of American States. Nobel peace laureate Tawakkol Karman and Alan Rusbridger, the former Guardian editor-in-chief, are among the 16 ordinary board members so far selected and the total board will expand to 40 names over time.

“Our roster includes three former judges, six former or current journalists, and other leaders with backgrounds from civil society, academia and public service,” said Thomas Hughes, the director of the oversight board. “They represent a diverse collection of backgrounds and beliefs, but all have a deep commitment to advancing human rights and freedom of expression.”

So what is the board? Well its main aim is to set Facebook policy and act as the final arbiter in disputes about what should and should not be allowed on the platform. This has been an area which has been decidedly lacking until now but has become more and more important.

Take, for example, Facebook’s policy on political speech and adverts. I’ve written a lot about this in the past. I have criticised the company for failing to have a vision as to how it believes politicians (and issue campaigners) should be able to act, a rationale for why they should be treated differently from others and a robust fact-checking system which can guide users to understand why what they are being told might not be true. As a result, Facebook has become out of line with other platforms and often appears to be making up policy on the hoof.

Facebook currently operates a single world-wide policy on political speech. They allow politicians to say what they want. And they allow political adverts to pretty much do the same. In contrast, ordinary advertisers cannot say things that are untrue and even organic posts can be subject to fact-checking. Given the predominance that the platform holds in the marketplace in many countries, this can allow politicians free rein to lie to the electorate with little chance that alternative points of view – or the truth – will get an airing.

Facebook has also failed to take account of the different election laws that apply in countries around the world. Many of these are out-dated, but the platform hasn’t really grasped the chance to work with legislatures to update laws and make sure that Facebook policies in the territory are in compliance.

So will the new board deal with these issues? We will have to wait and see.

Facebook suggests that Iran targeted Scottish Independence referendum with fake online accounts

Facebook has suggested that Iran was engaged in attempted online election and political manipulation as far back as 2011 and tried to influence the result of the 2014 Scottish independence referendum.

A report by Graphika – which has been allowed access to Facbook’s data – says that there were thousands of accounts and these promoted Ron Paul’s presidential bid and the Occupy movement as well as a Yes vote in the Scottish referendum. The company suggests that such efforts may have been more designed to test the water than significant operations, but that fake accounts linked to Iran’s state broadcaster were promoting messages favourable to that state. Arabic language efforts aimed at Iran’s neighbours were much bigger operations.

Graphika makes clear that many of the posts were entreaties to follow Islamic teachings and amplify state messaging as well as attempts at audience building. It also suggests that for a period some of the fake accounts promoted the arabic language version of Russian broadcaster Sputnik. But there were activities related to elections:

“This activity focused briefly on three main topics: the Republican primaries of early 2012, the Occupy movement of the same period, and the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. In each case, the network used a combination of fake accounts, pages, and groups to push its messaging, with the fake accounts sharing and promoting the pages and groups. Rather than the website-heavy content of later efforts, this was much more based on visuals, particularly cartoons. None of these posts yielded major viral impact, measured in likes or shares, and some of the pages were abandoned after only a few days… Nevertheless, Facebook’s revelation is of historical interest: it provides a confirmed data point on attempted foreign interference in Western democratic exercises as far back as 2012, a full electoral cycle before the Russian interference of 2016.”

Specifically talking about the Scottish Independence referendum, Graphika says:

“None of these posts achieved viral impact, measured in the number of likes, shares, or comments. Typical posts scored a few dozen reactions, sometimes a little over 100. This is not negligible, but it is a long way away from being an effort on the sort of scale that might have had an impact on the referendum. In March 2014, six months before the Scottish referendum, the cartoons page stopped posting, for unknown reasons.”

This report is interesting for two main reasons. First in that it shows that Iran was apparently active in this field before Russia’s Internet Research Agency started. Second, because it confirms the sorts of operations that could be undertaken, although it appears that Iran decided that attempts to use cartoons to influence western elections were not likely to be successful.

Poland’s Senate rejects postal vote plans

The upper chamber of the Polish parliament has rejected a plan for an all-postal ballot in Sunday’s Presidential election. There is now confusion as to whether the vote can go ahead. The proposal for an all-mail voting system was made by the government which wanted to see the May 10th election date kept despite the Covid-19 pandemic.

The measure passed the lower house where the governing PiS party has a majority, but the Senate initially insisted on its right to scrutinise the measure for 30 days and then ultimately voted against it. The measure returns to the lower house for the final decision. However the government earlier insisted that the Postal Service and election officials should press ahead with preparations for the change.

It is suggested that the government believes an election now is the best chance of its ally, incumbent Andrej Duda, being re-elected. Opposition campaigners and candidates have not, of course, been able to hold rallies or conduct normal election activities and have little access to the mainstream media.

OSCE/ODIHR, Europe’s leading election observer group, has advised that changes to the method of voting, even if approved by parliament, should not be made so close to election day and have also pointed out that the electoral process is about more than the ability to cast a vote.

Despite the election date theoretically being fixed by law, there are still a couple of options open to the government. They could declare a state of emergency which would automatically delay the polls until 90 days after it is lifted. Alternatively, they have to power to delay the election for a couple of weeks.

Government figures have now suggested that early Parliamentary elections could happen as a result of the furore over the Presidential vote.

And in Serbia…

Meanwhile, Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic is understood to be considering lifiting his country’s state of emergency and triggering the delayed elections there. The suggested date for the vote is June 21st.