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Protecting election integrity in the digital age

Protecting election integrity in the digital age

The Kofi Annan Commission has called for urgent action by governments, business and civil society to protect democracy – and specifically the election process - from digital threats.

The Commission, comprised of the tech sector, civil society, governments, academia and the media, was convened by Kofi Annan (Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1997 to 2006) in 2018 to answer the question: how can we mitigate the risks of digital innovation to our elections while harnessing the opportunities to strengthen democracy worldwide?

The organisation has now released its final report, having consulted with experts in Brazil, Mexico, Kenya, Cote D'Ivoire, South Africa, and India, and gathered several research papers from Latin America, Africa, and Asia – along with input from meetings with the European Commission, leading actors from the internet and social media industries.

According to a statement released by the Commission, the report sets out actionable recommendations in five major areas: polarisation, hate speech, disinformation, political advertising and foreign interference.

These are based on several key findings in the report, including: that democracies in the global South are the most vulnerable to digital threats, the rise of the transnational business of election influencing poses risks to democracy if it is not regulated, countries with pre-existing polarisation, a history of violence, and highly partisan media are particularly vulnerable to the weaponisation of social media – and current debate on the impact of digital platforms is informed by claims based on inconclusive evidence and competing or incomplete data.

The Commission added that the report has come "at an inflection point; approximately 80 elections will be held in 2020 and if action is not taken, the integrity of these elections and the legitimacy of the outcome may be called into question."

In a factual overview of specific countries, including Kenya and Nigeria, the Commission highlighted under the heading 'Citizen Monitoring of Hate Speech in Kenya, 2012 – 2013', that "the 2007 Kenyan presidential elections triggered two months of widespread violence. Anecdotal evidence suggests that prolific online hate speech was influential in mobilizing violent behaviour. In the months leading up to the 2013 election, there were attempts to avoid this level of violence repeating. However, violence faded during the elections due to the collective action of civil society, who took innovative approaches to countering hate speech. Colloquially dubbed 'peace propaganda,' civil society organisations issued widespread pleas for peace and unity on social media, billboards, and through advertising campaigns."

Laura Chinchilla, Chair of the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age, explained: "Much of global attention has been on digital threats and foreign manipulation of elections afflicting Western countries. For the first time, we take a particular look at the Global South, where new democracies or those in transition are particularly vulnerable to digital threats but where promising democratic developments are also taking place."

The Commission recommends specific actions by public authorities and internet platforms, including:

• Governments should establish an international convention regulating cross-border engagement to distinguish legitimate electoral assistance from illicit or unlawful interventions.

• Countries must adapt their political advertising regulations to the online environment. In particular, the definition of political advertising should be a matter of law, defined by governments, and not left up to digital platforms.

• Industry, governments and civil society actors concerned about the integrity of elections should create a global code of conduct defining the role of political consultancies and vendors of election equipment.

• The Commission calls on governments to compel digital platforms to release their data to independent researchers. Without this critical information, a comprehensive assessment of the impact of technology on democracy cannot be completed and will continue to pose threats to the democratic process.

• Social media platforms should create a coalition to address digital threats to democracy, as they have done collaboratively to address terrorism or child exploitation.

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