Elections and cyberspace: are democracies in danger?
With just weeks to go before the 2020 U.S. election, and in the wake of an aggressive effort by Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential race on behalf of Donald Trump, the issue of voter manipulation in cyberspace is a hot topic.
A recent conference held by EPFL’s C4DT (Center for Digital Trust), and live streamed, with some of the world’s leading experts on cyber security, fake news and democracy, heard that citizens and governments should re-gain their sense of alarm and do something to urgently address what we all know is a huge, and growing, problem.
An obvious focus for concern are the social media platforms that most of us engage with every day. As EPFL’s Dr. Rebekah Overdorf, a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Distributed Information Systems Laboratory, part of the School of Computer and Communication Sciences said, “social media manipulation is a problem wherever social media is, and social media is everywhere.”
Currently, Overdorf is studying cyber disinformation and election interference in the former Soviet Republic of Kyrgyzstan, sandwiched between Russia and China and sometimes referred to as ‘the island of democracy’. As she told the conference, “most research on social media manipulation’s effect on democracy is done almost exclusively in the United States or Western Europe but this kind of manipulation happens all over the world, so it’s also important to study it in non-Western contexts.”
Earlier this month, the prime minister of Kyrgyzstan stood down a week after post-election protests in support of opposition groups who said the October 4 ballot had been subject to widespread manipulation and voter suppression. Overdorf said her research focused on the manipulation of Facebook to spread fake news and other disinformation in the lead-up to the election, “With a local team of journalists, students and activists we have been looking at the three key ways used to control information: noise – to drown out opposing voices with fake accounts like troll farms; disinformation – fake news to destroy trust, which can work when the audience is in a state of alarm or is disenfranchised; and, attacks – for example publicly outing a candidate’s sexuality, not only aiming to damage that person but creating fear in others that they might also be attacked if they speak out.”
Another speaker, Steve El-Sharawy, the Head of Insights at EzyInsights told the conference that global manipulation is out of control. “In 2019 Facebook reported that it had removed 2.19 billion fake accounts. This means that there are a lot of fake accounts but these numbers need to be considered in context. It doesn’t mean that Facebook has removed everything. Is it 50% of fake accounts, or 25% is it 99%, there are still a lot of fake accounts.” He went on to say social media platforms are overwhelmed by the scale of manipulation, but with no formal reporting required anywhere in the world regarding any aspect of information manipulation, it is virtually impossible to define the size and scale of the problem at this time.
EPFL Professor Karl Aberer, also with the Distributed Information Systems Laboratory urged society to take not only a defensive stance against cyber manipulation through legislation/regulation but also an offensive approach, “the incentives to consume quality information are decreasing because usually you have to pay for it and people are spoiled by social media platforms, getting information for free. We should promote the production of quality information and its consumption through education and digital literacy so that people appreciate and understand how it interplays with democracy.”
But, to conclude, he also worried that it may be too late, “the whole issue [of digital misinformation] reminds me of what is happening with climate change and whether the stakeholders can get their act together, and make some serious decisions that hurt, before we get to the point of no return and we can no longer fix the problem – and by that I mean that democracies have been so damaged that they are probably turning into other systems that we value less these days.”