My latest for the Foreign Policy Centre on the next steps that can be taken in response to Russia’s effective refusal to allow a full election observation mission for the State Duma elections can be found here. Many thanks to FPC for publishing this.
UK’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee report on international institutions
The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee has published the report on its inquiry into the UK’s membership of international institutions. This includes membership of the OSCE and its election observation related activities.
I’m delighted to see that a couple of recommendations that I included in my evidence have been adopted by the Committee. These include a recommendation for the government to publish an annual proposal for which election observation missions it plans to join and for OSCE to move to observe online and social media activities in a more robust manner.
You can read the entire report here (which includes links to the various evidence submissions including my own and those from other international observers).
Reading List – 22nd January 2021
Elections in Kazakhstan Yield Results as Predicted
Annette Bohr from Chatham House looks at the results of the recent Kazakhstan elections where the ruling Nur-Otan party gained the predicted widespread support and held its super-majority in Parliament. No new parties were allowed to register for the poll and poll monitors were denied access. Those who have criticised the event are facing prosecution.
The OSCE/ODIHR mission preliminary statement can be found here.
Azerbaijan seizing salaries to pay for post-war reconstruction
Eurasianet reports that state workers in Azerbaijan are being forced to contribute to three funds designed to provide support for armed forces members injured in the Second Karabakh War and for reconstruction efforts.
Turkmenistan: Big on gas, short on options
Turkmenistan has one of the largest fields of natural gas within its borders, but pipeline capacity and the global economic slowdown caused by Covid-19 means that it has few customers to sell it to. China is the major buyer but has slowed delivery. And proposed pipelines to willing buyers in India and Pakistan and across the Caspian to Europe do not exist yet.
Tanzanian elections marred by allegations of fraud
The Presidential and Parliamentary elections in Tanzania have been marred by widespread accusations of fraud and violence, as reported in the Guardian, al-Jazeera and New York Times.
The reports carry quotes from local observers and opposition political parties but nothing from international election missions because credible groups have been denied entry or failed to receive the invitation and assurances they needed that their teams would be treated fairly.
From a European perspective, the organisation that covers most elections in Africa is the EU. A Polish MEP asked in September about the envisaged mission, but the answer confirmed that there would be none.
“As the EU did not receive an answer from the Tanzanian authorities to its application for accreditation that would ensure that the standard terms of reference for an Electoral Expert Mission would be respected, in particular in terms of access and dialogue with the electoral management bodies, the intended deployment of such a mission became unfeasible.”
The big regional organisations are the African Union and the Southern Africa Development Community, but only the AU was present and deployed at relatively short notice. There is nothing on their website to indicate a statement on the conduct of the election.
The only other missions that I can find any evidence of are the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA) and the East African Community (EAC). The first of these is a small NGO which has worked with the EU in the past. They had a small short term mission and are due to issue a statement tomorrow (UPDATE: No statement has been published on their website as at 18:20 GMT 30th October)
The EAC sounds like an august body and their mission was led by the former President of Burundi, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya. It declares that its mandate will be:
“to observe the overall electoral environment, pre-election activities, the polling day, the counting and tallying/announcement of results.”
Part of the problem is that the mission only arrived in country on Friday 23rd for an election the following Wednesday. By any standards it would be impossible for the team to assess the pre-election environment, let alone the campaign, voter registration, election staff training, voter education or any of the other key activities that take place before election day. This is particularly the case as on the first two days of their deployment the mission members were taking part in briefings
The EAC mission promises that a statement will be made on Friday 30th (and I will update at that point), but I am not especially hopeful of it being a fair and unbiased account as the head of the EAC, Libérat Mfumukeko, said in their launch press release:
“we expect a successful mission and we very much believe that this will further strengthen the democratic process and advance development in the region”
UPDATE: The EAC statement says they visited 160 polling stations. They give a positive report on the processes and note no negative aspects and conclude:
“Generally, the Mission is of the view that the Election process was conducted in a credible manner.”
This is a preliminary statement and a final report will be published at some point in the future.
At a time when Covid-19 is making normal work very difficult, it has been shown by OSCE/ODIHR and others that election observation missions can still take place in a meaningful way. That is not a criticism of the EU, SADC, Commonwealth and other groups that might have been present. They have to prioritise the safety of their teams and if the normal guarantees have not been given then it is understandable that they have stayed away
So it appears that it is a deliberate decision by the Tanzanian authorities to refuse to provide the usual invitations or guarantees to potential missions. It would be good to hear from governments whether they consider this to be a deliberate act and, if so, what they will be doing in response. Holding elections behind closed doors so that the results can be unfairly manipulated demands a diplomatic response and I hope that one will be forthcoming.
UPDATE: This post was updated on 30th October to take account of the presence of the AU mission, the EAC preliminary statement and the lack of anything from the EISA or AU.
Reading List – 19th June 2020
Belarus will hold a Presidential election on August 8th and Ryhor Astapenia, a Fellow at Chatham House has written a piece suggesting that, although President Alexander Lukashenko will win this time, the three pillars on which his rule is cemented appear to be crumbling and it is time to consider a Belarus without him in charge.
In his preview of the election, Andrew Roth for The Guardian looks at the measures being taken by the Lukashenko regime to crack down on the candidates running against him. Many of these opponents come from within the establishment and therefore have more credibility than previous electoral contestants.
At the same time, the Director of ODIHR, the election observing wing of OSCE, has publicly called on Belarus to issue the necessary invitation for international organisations to observe the election. Issuing such an invitation is a requirement of Belarus’ membership of OSCE.
Ben Noble has written a very interesting article looking at the national vote in Russia which starts next week. The point that stood out for me was that the vote only goes to emphasise the weakness of existing state institutions such as the Duma and Constitutional Court.
Quinton Scribner and Dr Richard Connolly have written a Chatham House article on the likely effect of the virus on Russia’s economy. For me this provided the clearest explanation yet of why Russia is so reluctant to spend the national ‘rainy day fund’ that they have built up over the years.
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.
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.
New Zealand debates autumn poll delay
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern has received largely positive reviews so far for her government’s handling of Covid-19. Now she is embroiled in a debate over whether or not to move the planned date of the general election from September to November.
Among the parties who want the delay are the opposition National Party and Ms Adern’s own coalition partners New Zealand First. There may, of course, be tactical reasons for a particular party requesting a delay and the most recent polls (although these are all from before the pandemic) pointed to New Zealand First losing their places in parliament.
There are a vast number of competing issues to balance when looking at issues like this, and I wrote about many of them before. Going ahead when there is a risk to voters, poll workers and campaigners is reckless. But delaying elections unless absolutely necessary is anti-democratic. And trying to come up with a quick fix such as all-postal ballots leaves the way open to confusion and to fraud.
The Director of OSCE/ODIHR, Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, has written a powerful piece about the proposal by the Polish lower house to go ahead with elections there on May 10th. She points out that elections are not just about polling day itself, but need to have a proper campaign with both government and opposition able to reach out to voters. Moving to a postal ballot after a campaign period dominated by government figures on state-controlled media during a lockdown does not fit, she suggests. New Zealand is not the same as Poland, of course, but the need to have an open campaign as well as workable polling day should apply in all democracies.
There is no easy answer, of course. Scientists suggest that Covid-19 may ease before coming back as a second wave and so there might only be a small window of comparative freedom in which elections could be held. A number of countries besides New Zealand are due to hold (or have re-scheduled) elections this autumn and will have to make similar decisions.
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.
Facebook’s dilemma over free speech and what they could be doing to keep elections fair
UPDATE: This long-read has been updated in the light of new developments and comments from a wide range of colleagues around the world. For the newer version, please see here.
Facebook’s election-related struggles are continuing to make the news. This time it is their decision not to seek to police the truth or otherwise of a Donald Trump advert claiming that potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden used leverage over $1bn of foreign aid to Ukraine to persuade the country to push out the official running an inquiry into his son.
CNN has already taken the decision not to air the advert which is says has been comprehensively disproved by journalists and organisations such as factcheck.org. However, Facebook, alongside Youtube, Twitter and Fox News, have all run it saying they do not want to get involved in issues of free speech and that the advert does not violate company policies.
“Our approach is grounded in Facebook’s fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is arguably the most scrutinized speech there is,” wrote Katie Harbath, Facebook’s head of global elections policy to the Biden campaign.
Elizabeth Warren’s fake news advert
In response, Elizabeth Warren, another of the leading Democratic candidates has produced her own Facebook advert claiming that Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook are openly backing Donald Trump’s re-election. This is not true, of course, as she acknowledges, but she says the advert goes to show how the platform’s decision could be used in the coming contest.
In truth, the Facebook decision is broadly in line with the situation in the UK. Political, election and candidate adverts (where they are allowed) are subject to different regulation from washing powder or supermarkets. Whereas regular adverts can be judged by Ofcom or the Advertising Standards Authority (depending on the medium), political adverts are subject only to the broader oversight of courts concerned with obscenity, incitement and defamation.
It also highlights the almost impossible task facing the company. If they choose to intervene and judge the truthfulness or otherwise of political statements (either directly or via third parties) then they will be accused by Trump and others of interfering in the right to free speech. If they do not intervene then they will be labelled as allowing lies and distortion to affect the election.
As a colleague puts it:
“The UK tradition about political advertising has traditionally been a balance between two considerations. One was that normally the truth-value of a political claim was usually harder to judge than with commercial claims; particularly when the political claim relates to things that will happen in the future. Therefore, claims about how much Labour would put up your taxes if they won, a staple of Conservative election campaigning forever, or the abolition of the NHS, were all debatable. Parties rarely resorted to outright, provable lies about observable facts. But also, political ads were excluded from the ban on ‘knocking copy’ – comparative advertising saying your product or shop is best. But there was a presumption that if a party stepped over an ethical (but not regulatory) line, then another party had the right to a response that was stronger than would normally be permitted in advertising.
That sort of worked, although the partisan press subverted it a bit and there wasn’t a level playing field with campaigning resources (the Conservatives got away with some pretty bad scare stuff in 1924 and 1931, while Labour’s dodgy ‘whose finger on the trigger?’ campaign in 1951 met significant blowback, although it still seemed to be effective).
The problem now is that without a unified media the same process where dodgy claim is met with comparative advertising no longer happens, and with what is left of public service media or media of record afraid to adjudicate on truth value it doesn’t get done. And Facebook’s business model probably makes the exposure to comparative, critical takes even less likely.
And alongside the rise of this, there’s the rise in shameless lying – like terrorism, there’s not much a civilised society can do about bad faith actors in positions of political leadership without subverting its own civilised values.
Facebook is different from the Baldwin era press barons who used their power to pursue their own hobby-horses. It’s power without responsibility for rent – pay enough, or have enough power already, and there aren’t really any barriers. In conditions of extreme upper-end wealth and income concentration, it’s a recipe for abuse.”
What could be done?
Could it be different? Certainly. There are many countries where the law states that political adverts and promotions must be truthful in the same way as commercial adverts are. And whilst Ms Harbath’s comments were reflective only of the situation in the USA, they raise a whole set of questions as regards countries which are not mature democracies, where most people get their news from social media and where the rules of elections are simply different from the USA or UK.
In the past, the platform set different rules for advertisers as opposed to regular posters. They banned adverts containing “deceptive, false or misleading content”, a much stronger restriction than its general rules around non-paid for posts. However, Facebook has now announced that it will allow political adverts to run, regardless of falsehoods they might contain, with the exception, perhaps, of posts that contain links to previously debunked third party content.
Clegg sets out Facebook’s view
Nick Clegg, now Facebook’s VP of Global Affairs and Communications, said in a recent speech:
“…we will not send organic content or ads from politicians to our third-party fact-checking partners for review. However, when a politician shares previously debunked content including links, videos and photos, we plan to demote that content, display related information from fact-checkers, and reject its inclusion in advertisements.”
Clegg goes on to discuss what Facebook refers to as a ‘newsworthiness’ exemption:
“This means that if someone makes a statement or shares a post which breaks our community standards we will still allow it on our platform if we believe the public interest in seeing it outweighs the risk of harm. Today, I announced that from now on we will treat speech from politicians as newsworthy content that should, as a general rule, be seen and heard. However, in keeping with the principle that we apply different standards to content for which we receive payment, this will not apply to ads – if someone chooses to post an ad on Facebook, they must still fall within our Community Standards and our advertising policies.
When we make a determination as to newsworthiness, we evaluate the public interest value of the piece of speech against the risk of harm. When balancing these interests, we take a number of factors into consideration, including country-specific circumstances, like whether there is an election underway or the country is at war; the nature of the speech, including whether it relates to governance or politics; and the political structure of the country, including whether the country has a free press. In evaluating the risk of harm, we will consider the severity of the harm. Content that has the potential to incite violence, for example, may pose a safety risk that outweighs the public interest value. Each of these evaluations will be holistic and comprehensive in nature, and will account for international human rights standards.”
I’m afraid that I don’t quite know what this means. How is Facebook making a judgement about the risk of harm? How will the timing of an election or being at war affect their view? How will the existence of a free press affect the decision and what exactly constitutes a free press – it is often not a binary issue? Katie Harbath told me that:
“In terms of what might cause harm we are looking for things that may jeopardize physical safety. We work with trusted partners across the globe to help us identify if content might lead to real world harm. In terms of if a country has freedom of speech or press we use a few sources, but Freedom House’s rankings are a main one.”
Even if third party fact-checkers are used, they are generally small NGOs. They have limited time and few resources. They certainly aren’t able to deal with every claim made in a political Facebook advert during a big election such as a general election in the UK. They can pick and choose some of the biggest or boldest claims and subject them to scrutiny, but the need to be comprehensive and expert often means that the damage has been done and the conversation has moved on long before a third party group manages to convince Facebook to remove a false claim. If this sort of delayed action is to have any meaning then there needs to be some sort of consequence for the advertiser who makes false claims – either financial penalties or some form of suspension or ban.
Even if a third party fact checker has deemed a video or statement to be false, Facebook does not remove it entirely. Harbath told me:
“We reduce the reach (demote it) and add a treatment on it so people can see it has been marked fake. If a politician were to share content that already has that treatment then the label would remain.”
Donie O’Sullivan of CNN makes the point that:
“Facebook’s argument might be more convincing in a world without the platform. The company has helped to create and enhance ideological echo chambers. Some Facebook users only follow and engage with content with which they agree… Given how the Facebook News Feed is determined by an algorithm and the highly targeted nature of Facebook ads, it is entirely possible that a Facebook user could see a false ad from a campaign and not encounter a post that challenges or corrects it.”
Paid for vs organic content
And then there is the split between paid for advertisements and organic posts by candidates and others. Should there be a difference between how content that Facebook gets paid for are treated and those which are simply ‘community posts’. Harbath told me that content posted by people not directly connected to a candidate or campaign will be subject to fuller moderation than that which comes either from the candidate or a recognised group associated with them.
The bigger issue – who pays?
There is also another, often bigger issue. Who is actually behind the advertising that appears online? Particularly in countries other than the USA. Facebook now requires that all political adverts are labelled as such, but whilst some might be pretty obvious – it is badged with the name of the candidate or party – much comes from otherwise unknown individuals or organisations.
In the UK, as in many other countries, campaigning is allowed by parties and candidates and by third party groups whose spending limits vary according to whether or not they are registered with the electoral commission. But Facebook doesn’t restrict advertising just to permitted participants. It takes the view that responsibility rests with the advertiser to conform with the law. And whilst countries such as India issue formal certificates to candidates which Facebook allows to be uploaded to the site as a guarantee of authenticity, the platform also allows other, non certificate holders, to pay for advertising.
One of the biggest concerns that election-watchers have is that foreign money is influencing elections. Facebook have pretty much shrugged their shoulders at this problem. They told me that whilst they can check for an official identity document from the country concerned and that the funds are paid in local currency and using a local billing address, they have no means of knowing the ultimate origin of the funding. It is also unclear how often such documentation is actually checked. The law in the UK requires that the original source of political funding must be a permissible donor. This can be investigated by the police and electoral commission in cases of doubt. Other countries have similar rules. But Facebook doesn’t even make a statement requiring this from political adverisers.
One size fits all
As I’ve written before, Facebook is not alone in this dilemma. Nor are they doing nothing. But what they have done is pretty much a one-size-fits-all approach, largely based on an American model. They require political advertisers to register and be identified as described above. They also release details of who has paid what amount on a regular basis.
Talking to Katie Harbath, I was told that the company employs 40 teams and 500 full time staff to cover elections across the world. She told me that for each election they start work about 18 months in advance to try to idientify the threats that might be involved and consider whether to reach out to the country’s election commission to discuss these threats. What they don’t do is seek to work with individual countries to ensure that Facebook’s rules align with the laws and regulations of each country. In many cases those laws are pretty out of date and were written for a pre-internet age, but they are still the law. Facebook could also be offering to work with parliaments and election commissions on a joint project to help re-shape the law to make it relevant to the current era. Whilst none of this appears to be happening yet, Facebook tell me they have signed memorandums of understanding with many electoral commissions in Latin America and in India, which is a significant step in the right direction.
It’s also worth pointing out that the 18 month lead time is only any use if the election goes ahead as planned. Snap elections cause additional headaches and, whilst I presume Facebook might have thought in advance about the situation in the UK, I don’t know whether this would be the case in, say, Serbia or Malawi.
Fact checking vs profit
Facebook’s $7bn profits are made possible through the use of as much technology – the agorithms – as possible. Introducing more human beings to fact-check or adjudicate on the validity of political speech only serves to get in the way and cost more. CNN’s Donie O’Sullivan suggests that Facebook might be happy to accept the occasional letter of complaint from Joe Biden in return for not losing Trump’s $20 million of adverts since May 2018, an amount that can only rise as the election approaches. Others believe that the 2020 US elections will be the last in which the platform accepts political advertising.
The end of paid-for social media advertising?
It is worth noting that other social media platforms have taken the decision not to allow political advertising (although they do allow political content). Notably, TikTok has said it won’t accept political ads on its platform, declaring last week that “the nature of paid political ads is not something we believe fits the TikTok platform experience” and that political ads don’t support the platform’s mission “to inspire creativity and build joy.”
Even if paid-for adverts are no longer allowed, it seems improbable that Facebook or any other social media platform will ban politicians or the sharing of political content. And that means they will continue to play a significant role in elections, especially for those people who get most of their news from sociel media.
Technology platforms have a lot on their plate. Deepfakes, disruptive bad actors and co-ordinated inauthentic behaviour were all raised with me as challenges to be faced. But it remains a disappointment that the most high profile of these companies is still leaving the door so wide for illegal manipulation and are not doing more to recognise that many countries in the world operate elections on a model (and electoral regulation) far different from the US system. Here are a few things I think they could do while still adhering to the general principles of free speech:
- Respect the laws of the country Facebook is operating in rather than seeking to impose a single set of (largely Californian) values world-wide. Work with parliaments and election commissions to help to design political advertising rules for the platform that align with the individual laws of that country, and offer to work with these same bodies to modernise election law where it is deficient;
- Require all political advertisers to state that they are the original source of the money paying for the adverts or that they have raised it from permissible sources. Use the platform’s own technology to investigate whether this is the case as much as possible;
- In cases where national or platform rules are broken, have in place a system for financial penalties and/or platform bans and pledge to share all information with law enforcement bodies in the country concerned to enable investigation and prosecution.
- If reliance is to be placed on fact checking NGOs to counter the most egregious cases, then Facebook should be helping to set up and fund a network of such groups across all the democracies where the platform operates.
Ultimately, these suggestions may conflict with free speech ideals and some may worry that protesters in authoritarian states will have their details handed over to the authorities. I acknowledge that these are both legitimate concerns. However I would suggest that this only highlights the need to change the laws in those countries to make them into more mature democracies which embrace legitimate protest and free speech. But there cannot be one rule for us and another for ‘them’. If we want Facebook to take action to ensure that the Russians cannot interfere in elections in the US or UK, then we have to accept that the Russian election authorities will want to enforce the laws that exist in that country too. Facebook could consider prominent links to respected election observer reports (such as by OSCE/ODIHR , the OAS or EU) which highlight shortcomings in a country’s election structures and media freedom.