Munich Security Conference: Social media giants put fair elections under threat
February 16, 2020 | 10:30 AM
by DW
Representative image

The US is not the only country holding elections this year—some 80 countries around the globe will go to the polls in 2020, according to data from the Kofi Annan Foundation. One particular issue looms large over each of them: How can we safeguard the integrity of elections against foreign actors and domestic interests in the face of new technologies, social media and disinformation that can be used to mobilize large-scale voter manipulation?

A new report released by the Kofi Annan Foundation's Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age attempts to provide answers to that question. The report, which was presented at this year's Munich Security Conference (MSC) and sparked a sense of urgency amongst delegates. The commission of experts tasked with compiling the report focused mainly on countries in the global south, as they are particularly vulnerable to disputes over the legitimacy of election results, which can lead to violent unrest.

The report points out that manipulation in such countries often goes undetected, due to the fact that many lack sufficient means to monitor elections as well as independent institutions that could step in when manipulation has been detected. "For the foreseeable future, elections in the democracies of the global south will be focal points for networked hate speech, disinformation, external interference, and domestic manipulation," is the report's bleak prediction.

Cambridge Analytica: From Kenya elections to Brexit and Trump

One of the report's presenters was Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the former president of Estonia. His country has firsthand experience with foreign actors attempting to use digital technologies to influence and manipulate elections. In 2007, Estonia, a highly digitalized country, was the target of a massive hacking operation that nearly paralyzed it. Attacks targeted government agencies, including the country's parliament, as well as its president and a number of ministries, banks and media outlets. In 2009, a functionary from Nashi, a youth organization with close ties to the Russian government, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Speaking to DW, Ilves brought up the activities of Cambridge Analytica, a data analytics outfit. Cambridge Analytica not only played a key role in the 2016 Brexit referendum and the election of US President Donald Trump —Ilves says it was also contracted to actively manipulate a number of elections in the global south. The report cites two concrete examples of such manipulation: Namely, elections in Kenya in 2013 and 2017. "When they saw their plan had worked, they began employing similar methods in a trans-Atlantic context," says Ilves.

A challenge for politicians and lawmakers

In order to protect elections as the backbone of democracy, the Annan Foundation's report listed 13 proposals. One of these is a plea to candidates and political parties to refrain from employing fraudulent campaign practices such as using stolen material or manipulated images. Lawmakers, too, says the report, must also clearly outline what acceptable political advertising looks like.

The report also calls upon legislators to force social media companies to offer up comprehensive data about who exactly has paid for political ads. The report made clear that social media giants must improve transparency by providing data to academic institutions and civil society organizations. Above all, social media firms need to give users the opportunity to fundamentally reject all forms of political advertising directed at them.

Examples of hope?

Alex Stamos, former chief security officer at Facebook and now a professor at Stanford University in the US, was one of the report's authors. Speaking in Munich, he provided one positive example of social media companies and government agencies cooperating on election security: Noting that Facebook had worked closely with Germany's Federal Office for Information Security (BSI) during the country's 2017 parliamentary elections, the social media giant had deleted thousands of fake accounts spreading misinformation in the run-up to the vote.

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