Doppelgängers

Whether it be jumping on a bandwagon or seeking to mislead the electorate, Ukraine has taken the lead in doppelgänger candidates causing confusion. But this year’s elections were not the first use of such underhand tactics and India, Russia, the UK and USA have all seen variations of this phenomenon.

Jumping on the Bandwagon

At the recent parliamentary elections in Ukraine, the Servant of the People (Sluha Narodu) party of new president Volodymyr Zelensky won an overall majority with 254 out of 424 seats contested. It was the first time in the history of the country since independence that a single party had got a majority in parliament, but this was hardly the most unexpected outcome. Zelensky had won more than 73% of the vote in the second round of the presidential poll four months earlier and, whilst a lot of that vote might have been against his opponent rather than for him, there was no doubt that Zelensky and his party were massively popular. So it came as no surprise when a lot of people sought to jump on the bandwagon to gain an advantage.

Servant of the People was a political party formed by Zelensky and named after his TV show. In that production he plays a history teacher who unwittingly becomes president after a rant about corruption is illicitly videoed by his students and goes viral. The naif as president concept became hugely popular and Zelensky rode it into office with a campaign based on TV and online campaigns. In his inauguration speech he called for early parliamentary elections (as well as fundamental changes to remove immunity for elected politicians and changes to the voting system). Despite a court challenge, these snap elections happened and Servant of the People was in prime position.

Servant of the People was not the only new party. The Voice (Holos) party also appeared on the ballot paper. This was the creation of popular musician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk. He had talked about standing in the presidential election but chose not to in a move widely seen to be co-ordinated with Zelensky. In the event of a hung parliament it was expected that The Voice Party would be likely to align with Servant of the People. As with Servant of the People, The Voice fielded a slate comprised entirely of political newcomers. No sitting or former MP was running as a candidate for either party.

 

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A polling station in Kherson district set up for the 2019 Parliamentary elections

 

Ukraine has a mixed voting system for Parliamentary polls (although this is the subject of one of the changes proposed by the President). Around half of all MPs are elected from party lists. The remainder are elected from single mandate districts using first past the post. It was in these districts that closer contests and electoral malpractice were expected as they pitched incumbents against representatives of the new parties.

Servant of the People and The Voice were so popular that many people sought to imply their candidacies were part of these movements even when they were not. This was impossible to achieve on the national vote where lists were submitted by registered parties only. However in the single mandate districts OSCE/ODIHR found 79 candidates in 55 districts who used the name Servant of the People to run against the candidate officially nominated by that party. (In addition, other candidates campaigned with colours, logos and slogans similar to Servant of the People.) The way these candidates got the name Servant of the People onto the ballot paper was usually by claiming to be employed by an organisation of that name, of which there are currently 44 according to Ukraine’s registry of legal entities. In addition, the name Holos was used by five independent candidates in single mandate districts and in one case each the names of Opposition Platform for Life, Opposition Bloc and European Solidarity were used.

Servant of the People complained to the Central Electoral Commission who decided that the reference to employment places which coincided with the name of the party would be removed from ballot papers in some cases. However it is not clear how many cases this applied to and whether or not ballot papers were re-printed.

One candidate who was particularly put out by the decision by Servant of the People to run entirely new candidates was a sitting MP from the Bloc Petro Poroshenko (which re-named itself European Solidarity for the elections) faction who, when Volodymyr Zelensky announced his intention to run for President, left his faction and became a cheerleader for the man who would become the new President. But he was declined the opportunity to run as an official Servant of the People candidate. This did not stop him trying to imply he represented the President’s party however. His campaign literature made frequent references to the party and president and even featured (genuine) photographs of him standing alongside Zelensky. Voters, however, were not to be fooled and he lost his seat to the official Servant of the People candidate.

It is impossible to say whether these cases were all bandwagon jumpers seeking to cash in on the popularity of Servant of the People or whether some were in fact attempts at spoiler candidates initiated by electoral opponents. The suspicion is that they were mostly the former, but Ukraine has a history of another form of doppelgänger, the ‘clone candidate’.

Clone Candidates

The most well known of these clone candidates is Yuriy Tymoshenko. Mr Tymoshenko stood in the presidential contest in March as a self-nominated (independent) candidate. He revelled in the attention he received because he happened to share a name with the long-established candidate (and former Prime Minister) Yulia Tymoshenko. The similarity was not confined to their family name and first name. Both of their fathers had the name Volodymyr and so, in the Ukrainian fashion, they had similar patronymics – Volodymyrovitch for Yuriy and Volodymyrivna for Yulia. When asked about this apparent coincidence, Yuriy Tymoshenko claimed that he had announced his candidacy long before his near namesake and claimed to be a serious runner. No one believed this statement and his limited campaign material appeared in the same colours and style as his more popular namesake and used the name Y.V. Tymoshenko (Ю́ В Тимоше́нко in cyrillic script). Yuriy Tymoshenko was a spoiler, or technical, candidate aiming to draw some votes away from Yulia Tymoshenko. This was helped by the ballot papers listing candidates in alphabetical order, something unchanged despite a court challenge from Yulia Tymoshenko. In the event, Yuriy Tymoshenko won some 0.62% of the vote. This was not enough to make a difference to the outcome of the contest – Yulia Tymoshenko came third with 13.4% and was 2.55% behind the second placed candidate – but was almost certainly far more than he would have gained on his own merits. Of the 39 candidates on the ballot paper, 26 who did little or no campaigning (like Yuriy Tymoshenko) won between 0.01% and 0.17% of the vote.

 

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Ballot paper for the 2019 Ukraine Presidential election showing both Yuriy Tymoshenko and Yulia Tymoshenko

 

It is impossible to be certain whether Yuriy Tymoshenko’s candidacy was his own idea or whether he was inspired or funded by other electoral opponents of Yulia Tymoshenko. In limited interviews he claimed to be standing entirely on his own initiative. However in the paperwork required for candidacy he declared an annual income of the equivalent of $10,000 against a deposit required for candidacy of $92,000.

Clone candidates existed in Ukraine before Yuriy Tymoshenko. In 2016 UKROP candidate Oksana Valentynivna Tomchuk was opposed in the 27th constituency in the city of Dnipro by near namesakes Oksana Ivanivna Tomchuk (who also claimed to be a member of UKROP in her biography), Oksana Valeriivna Tomchuk and Oksana Hrygorivn Tomchuk.

The concept continued into the parliamentary elections. OSCE/ODIHR found 152 candidates with 69 similar or identical names standing in 42 single mandate districts. Police opened 46 investigations and the observation mission estimated that nine of the contests could have been affected by the phenomenon in that a clone candidate gained more votes than a similarly named candidate lost by.

In constituency number 25 Andriy Valeriyovych Bohdan was standing and his biography mentioned a connection to Servant of the People. Coincidentally, President Zelensky’s chief of staff is called Andriy Bohdan. Except he wasn’t running for Parliament anywhere and his patronymic is Yosypovych, not Valeriyovych. The official Servant of the People candidate, Maksym Buzhansky won the seat.

In constituency 92 in Uzhyn there were four candidates called Guzdenko with the first name of either Viktor or Vitaliy. Two had the same patronymic of Ivanovych. There are also three Oleksandr Ferenets.

In constituency 33 in Kryviy Rih, there were two Olha Volodymyrivna Babenkos. One was standing on behalf of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party and the other was self-nominated. In the same constituency there was also a Mykola Yuriyovich Kolesnik and a Mykola Yuriyovich Kolesnyk.

In constituency 38 in Novomoskovsk, Dnipropetrovsk region, there was Vladislav Borodin from Servant of the People and Volodymyr Borodin, a self-nominated candidate, as well as two Vadym Nesterenkos.

Finally, in constituency 133 in Odesa, there were four people named Baranskiy — Viktor, Vitaliy, Vitaliy, and Ihor. The first two were candidates from the ideologically similar but politically separate Opposition Platform and Opposition Bloc, respectively. There were also Gontaruk and Goncharuk (both self-nominated), and two Artem Dmytruks, including one representing the Servant of the People party.

 

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Voter information posters on display at a polling station in Kherson district during the 2019 Ukraine parliamentary elections

 

Doppelgängers are not limited to Ukraine. In the UK there was a problem with candidates standing with party names designed to mimic other parties. One persistent candidate was Richard Huggett who stood in the 1994 European Parliamentary elections in the Devon and East Plymouth single member seat under the label of ‘Literal Democrat’. Mr Huggett eventually polled 10,203 votes, far more than the 700 vote majority of the Conservative candidate over the genuine Liberal Democrat. In the 1997 general election, Mr Huggett sought to stand under the name ‘Gerald Maclone’ in the Winchester constituency against sitting MP Gerald Malone. He was prevented from doing so but then stood with the label ‘Liberal Democrat – Top Choice for Parliament’. In an ensuing by-election in the seat he stood again under the ‘Literal Democrat’ label. Throughout, Huggett claimed that he was not acting on behalf of anyone other than himself and his antics, and similar undertaken by others, were only prevented by the 1998 Registration of Political Parties Act which stops candidates standing under labels which may confuse voters.

 

The Indian elections of 2014 present probably the largest single gathering of clone candidates. In one seat in Bilaspur district in the central state of Chhattisgarh no fewer than five of the 35 candidates were named Lakhan Sahu. In another, ten candidates shared the same name. The use of clone candidates might have less of an impact in a country where there are low levels of literacy and where many voters rely on party symbols to locate their chosen candidate. However there can even be similarity between symbols of candidates with the same name. In the seat of Maval in Maharashtra there were two candidates called Shrirang Barne and three named Laxman Jagtap with suspicions that each ‘real’ candidate had recruited at least one clone of their main opponent to confuse matters. The genuine Barne had the electoral symbol of a bow and arrow whilst his namesake was represented by an arrow only. The three Jagtaps were represented by a teacup, a cap and a helmet.

 

Shadow Parties

In Russia the concept of ‘shadow parties’ developed in 2003 and have been in existence ever since. The State Duma (Parliamentary) elections of that year were held at a time when Vladimir Putin was in his first term and the parliamentary elections were the first big test of his leadership. He was the head of the United Russia party but he faced genuine callanges from both the right and left, from the Communist Party and from the Liberal Democrats (now re-branded as LDPR but still led by firebrand nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky). And so Rodina was created, allegedly at the instigation of the Kremlin, to leach votes away from these two threats. They used the same symbolism and imagery as the Communists and many of the nationalist policies of the Liberal Democrats, and eventually gained 37 seats in the legislature.

It is worth repeating how shaky Putin’s grasp on power could have been in those days if he had not overseen the triumphant return of an overwhelming United Russia bloc. Russia demands a strong leader and strong leaders control parliament. In the event, United Russia won 37.6% of the votes in the national list element of the elections and just 24% in the cosntituencies, but this was enough for 223 seats overall due to the splitting of the vote. The Communists won 52 seats and the Liberal Democrats 36 seats. Had Rodina not stood, it is highly likely that the Duma result would have been far more balanced and United Russia may not have held an overal majority.

That was more than 15 years ago. But the practice of shadow parties continues. Even in the 2018 presidential election – one which Putin was certain from the outset to win and where turnout was seen as the big concern – there was a field of eight allowed. As well as the real Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), the Communists of Russia (KR) were on the ballot – a party with much of the same imagery, the same idolatry of historic figures (maybe a little more Stalin than Lenin) and the same policy proposals. Every vote for KR was a vote that might otherwise go to KPRF. And this time Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the LDPR had to contend with Sergey Baburin, an eccentrically coiffured former MP with the wonderful ability to conjure nomination signatures from every district and region despite never actually having any activists in place to gather them.

At the same time, Putin’s campaign material looked strikingly similar to a lot of other posters on display on billboards around the country. But far from being mirrored by another candidate or party, the incumbent president had the same colour scheme and design as the official central election commission and so every one of their millions of posters could be taken at first glance to be one for the sitting president.

 

Spoiler candidates

In the USA it might not have been shadow parties that were used, but many elections have been swung by the existence of third party candidates with similar policies to one of the main players who have been given a mysterious boost by supporters of the other.

In ‘Gaming the Vote’, William Poundstone relates the story that John Dendahl, chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, quietly offered “more than $100,000” to the Green Party if they would run candidates in NM’s first and second Congressional Districts. The Greens were relatively strong in New Mexico and had already been spoilers in local races. The difference was that the Republicans were now willing to pay cash for services that had previously been free.

Poundstone also cites the June 2006 special election for the Congressman from California’s 15th district, where Republican Brian Bilbray was a ‘foaming-at-the-mouth anti-immigration hawk who supported building a fence clear from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico’. William Griffith, a running as an independent using $2000 of his own money, claimed to be even more anti-immigrant than Bilbray. Then something odd happened. Phone calls started urging voters to vote for Griffith. Radio ads too. Griffith didn’t know who was behind them. Both later turned out to have been funded by Democratic candidate Francine Busby.

 

Legal changes in the UK have shown that it is legislatively possible to prevent parties with similar names or candidates standing under labels designed to confuse. However courts and electoral commissions across the world have proved reluctant to interfere in cases where candidates with similar names choose to stand against each other, regardless of their motivation or provenance. Party names and symbols can help to lessen the confusion, as can active campaigning by the ‘real’ candidate. But even in obvious cases, it is still possible for enough voters to be confused that they cast their vote for the spoof candidate and, in tight contests, this can be enough to make the difference.

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.

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.

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.