Digital Election Interference

Digital Election Interference

Freedom on the Net 2019 Key Finding: Politicians and hyperpartisans use digital means to manipulate elections.

Written by
Adrian Shahbaz
Allie Funk

Digital platforms are the new battleground for democracy. Shaping the flow of information on the internet is now an essential strategy of those seeking to disrupt the democratic transfer of power through elections. Incumbent political actors around the globe use both blunt and nuanced methods to deter opposition movements while preserving a veneer of popular legitimacy. Such internet freedom restrictions tend to escalate before and during crucial votes.

Major authoritarian powers like Russia and China have been implicated in cyberattacks and information warfare linked to elections in democratic states. In February 2019, three months before Australia’s federal elections, security agencies reported a cyberattack against the computer networks of Parliament and the three main political parties that was attributed to China’s Ministry of State Security. Ukraine’s Central Election Commission faced a wave of cyberattacks, likely emanating from Russia, ahead of the April–May 2019 presidential election. In the run-up to the November 2018 midterm elections in the United States, Microsoft discovered that a unit associated with Russian military intelligence had created websites resembling those of the US Senate and prominent Republican-linked think tanks, in a bid to trick visitors into revealing sensitive information and passwords. Groups associated with Russia also spread disinformation across Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube during the May 2019 European Parliament elections. Such cross-border interference is meant to sow division, support favored candidates, and undermine democracy.

In a majority of countries evaluated, however, it was domestic actors who abused information technology to subvert the electoral process. In the 30 countries that held elections or referendums during the coverage period, Freedom House found three distinct forms of digital election interference: informational measures, in which online discussions are surreptitiously manipulated in favor of the government or particular parties; technical measures, which are used to restrict access to news sources, communication tools, and in some cases the entire internet; and legal measures, which authorities apply to punish regime opponents and chill political expression.

The prevalence of the three digital interference tactics varied across the democratic spectrum. Most strikingly, countries labeled Partly Free by Freedom in the World, an annual Freedom House report that assesses political rights and civil liberties, were most likely to suffer internet freedom score declines surrounding elections. This may reflect the fact that elections in such countries remain somewhat competitive, meaning incumbents with authoritarian ambitions find it necessary to intensify censorship and manipulation in order to remain in power.

Informational measures: Manipulating content with new sophistication

State and nonstate actors employed informational measures to distort the media landscape during elections in 24 countries over the past year, making it by far the most popular tactic. Freedom House previously outlined five major methods of content manipulation: propagandistic news, outright fake news, paid commentators, bots (automated accounts), and the hijacking of real social media accounts.

This year, populists and far-right leaders have grown adept not only at creating viral disinformation, but also at harnessing networks that disseminate it. Some such networks are explicitly directed by state or party officials, while others are semiautonomous, lending support to their political champions and receiving encouragement and approval in return. Working in tandem with government-friendly media personalities and business magnates, these online mobs amplify conspiracy theories, inflammatory views, and misleading memes from small echo chambers to the political mainstream.

In several countries that held elections, extremist parties seemed better equipped to exploit social media than their moderate rivals. Far-right groups may enjoy more success because—as studies have shown—false, shocking, negative, exaggerated, and emotionally charged content tends to spread faster and wider on social media platforms than other types of content. Moreover, the electoral authorities in most countries have yet to build sufficient oversight mechanisms for identifying and thwarting this type of electoral interference. The risk of punishment for skirting the relevant rules generally pales in comparison with the gains of winning an election.

In advance of Brazil’s October 2018 elections, the electoral court convened a special advisory council to better enforce strict rules on campaigning. Candidates and media outlets signed a pact to refrain from sharing fake news. Despite these efforts, political disinformation rose to a new level of intensity. Jair Bolsonaro and his far-right movement amassed a large following by spouting conspiracy theories on YouTube and taking advantage of the platform’s propensity to steer viewers toward ever-more radical videos. Operatives employed special software to scrape phone numbers from Facebook and automatically add recipients to a network of coordinated WhatsApp groups, based on identifiers like location, gender, or income level. Some of these echo chambers averaged more than 1,000 posts per day, with group administrators pumping out misleading memes on Bolsonaro’s main opponent and mobilizing supporters to harass critics. Local business groups reportedly funded an additional WhatsApp disinformation campaign against Bolsonaro’s opponent, in an apparent violation of campaign finance rules.

Mainstream political parties in India undertook similar strategies during general elections in April and May 2019. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the opposition Indian National Congress respectively deployed 1.2 million and 800,000 die-hard supporters to create and disseminate disinformation that amplified the party line on platforms including WhatsApp and Facebook. In addition, millions of users were flooded with misleading and inflammatory content on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “NaMo” app, which had been marketed to all Indians as a way to keep up with official government news; top officials in India’s National Cadet Corps, an all-volunteer youth wing of the Indian military, encouraged its 1.3 million cadets to download the app, which is privately owned by Modi and operated by the BJP. A researcher revealed that the app was secretly routing users’ personal information to a behavioral analytics company with offices in the United States and India.

Candidates in the Philippines, where disinformation tactics were pioneered during elections in 2016, updated their manipulation strategies for the May 2019 polls. To circumvent technology companies’ efforts to limit false and misleading news, political operatives spread information through closed groups on public platforms, where there is less content moderation, as well as through hyperpartisan alternative news channels on YouTube and Facebook. In another new tactic, candidates paid social media personalities with small- to medium-sized followings to promote their campaigns on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The “micro-influencers” sprinkled political endorsements among sexually suggestive images and pop-culture news. Compared with advertising on more popular accounts, these sponsored posts cost less money and appear more authentic, and they are not labeled as advertisements, allowing for the skirting of spending limits. In these conditions, the Philippines’ disinformation market has blossomed. Public relations and advertising professionals sell their services for as much as 30 million pesos ($580,000) for a three-month campaign.

Despite civil society’s early efforts to expose domestic disinformation in many countries, the campaigns are only growing in reach. Informational measures to interfere in elections may not carry the same stigma as technical and legal measures, though that is something the international community and civil society can work to change. Authoritarians are keenly aware of the “costs” of arresting prominent opposition members, for example, but in bots and trolls they have found ways to manipulate the media while maintaining plausible deniability on their own involvement.

Technical measures: Blocking, hacking, and cutting off access 

Technical measures played a role in the elections of at least 14 countries during the coverage period. Most commonly, officials targeted specific websites that they considered a threat to the rule of incumbent leaders. For example in Egypt, where political, press, and internet freedoms have all been eviscerated, citizens nevertheless launched an online campaign to voice opposition to proposed constitutional amendments that were designed to expand the extraordinary power of the military, extend the president’s control over the judiciary, and open the door for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to remain in office through 2030. The #Batel, or #Void, campaign gathered 60,000 signatures on its first day before being blocked. As campaigners published multiple mirrors, or copies, of the website on different URLs, those too were blocked, and at least 34,000 websites were rendered inaccessible as collateral damage. In the absence of any real debate, the amendments were adopted by a reported 89 percent of voters in a deeply flawed April 2019 referendum.

On the evening before and the day of Cambodia’s July 2018 general elections, the Information Ministry ordered service providers to temporarily block over a dozen independent news outlets, including Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and the Phnom Penh Post. The government, led for the past three decades by authoritarian prime minister Hun Sen, justified the move by citing a legal prohibition on campaigning within 24 hours of voting, even though the outlets were merely providing crucial information for voters to make informed choices at the ballot box. Authorities did not block scores of news outlets that were perceived to be less critical of the government. In the final result, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party won every seat in the lower house of Parliament, as the main opposition party had been formally banned in 2017.

In July 2018, Zimbabwe held its first election since the military’s November 2017 ouster of President Robert Mugabe, who had controlled the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union–Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) since the country’s independence in 1980. Following the vote, the website of a British-based advocacy organization, Zimelection.com, was blocked by the state-owned telecommunications firm TelOne, though it remained accessible via privately owned service providers. The discrepancy illustrated how state ownership of the telecommunications infrastructure can facilitate indirect or ad hoc blocking of resources deemed to be critical of the government. The opposition ultimately lost the vote, with ZANU-PF and its new leader, President Emmerson Mnangagwa, maintaining their grip on power.

In several other countries, governments restricted access to specific apps and platforms used by the opposition to mobilize, or resorted to shutting down the internet altogether. In Bangladesh, authorities briefly blocked Skype after noticing that it was used by exiled opposition leaders to communicate with local activists. Officials quickly determined that measure was insufficient; they repeatedly restricted mobile internet service throughout the country prior to and on election day in December 2018, preventing all Bangladeshis from using any messaging or social media applications on their mobile devices. The ruling Awami League and its allies won the elections in a landslide, securing all but 12 of the 300 parliamentary seats up for grabs. Some citizens in India, Kazakhstan, Malawi, and Pakistan were also denied internet connectivity during voting in their countries during the coverage period.

Technical restrictions often take the form of cyberattacks. Ahead of the July 2018 presidential election in Mexico, a distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack brought down the website of the opposition National Action Party on the same day that documents critical of eventual winner Andrés Manuel López Obrador were published. In Brazil, a journalist who alleged campaign violations by Jair Bolsonaro had her account hacked, with the perpetrators sending pro-Bolsonaro messages to her contacts. The website of a fact-checking project, Cekfakta, was hacked in Indonesia shortly after a live debate of presidential candidates.

Legal measures: Passing new restrictions and punishing dissent

In 12 countries, authorities employed legal measures, such as criminal charges, to control online speech during election periods. One of the most common charges was defaming public officials. For example, authorities in Malawi arrested two social media activists for posts that were deemed insulting to the president and first lady in the months leading up to May 2019 elections. In Turkey, police arrested several individuals for insulting President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on social media ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections in June 2018. Prior to India’s elections, police detained a journalist under the National Security Act for criticizing the BJP and Prime Minister Modi on Facebook, and the social media chief of the opposition Indian National Congress faced sedition charges for sharing a meme calling Modi a thief.

When existing legal measures seemed insufficient, incumbents introduced new rules or legislation to help control the online environment. A few months before Bangladesh’s general elections, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government passed a law prescribing prison sentences for certain types of online “propaganda.” This so-called Digital Security Act was subsequently used to arrest the editor of Daily71.com, a news outlet, for failing to toe the government’s line. Similarly, the Election Commission of Thailand issued vague and restrictive rules regulating what type of content parties and candidates could share on social media, and imposed criminal liability for noncompliance. One candidate for the opposition Pheu Thai Party chose to self-censor and deactivate her Facebook account to avoid violating the commission’s rules. Although opposition parties collectively won the most votes in the March 2019 elections, the first to be held since a 2014 military coup, the head of the junta stayed on as prime minister thanks to antidemocratic provisions in the new, military-backed constitution.

FOTN 2019 - Who Is Affected by Election Interference?

The fight to preserve the internet as a tool for democratic progress

Elections are a flashpoint for online censorship around the world because most leaders with authoritarian ambitions continue to rely on votes to maintain the appearance of legitimacy, and they recognize that the internet remains a potent instrument for challenging state power and asserting fundamental freedoms.

In Russia, after more than 50 opposition candidates were barred from running in Moscow’s city council elections in September 2019, protests erupted and spread across the country for nearly two months. The protesters used innovative digital communications tools to coordinate their activities, which included medical support, legal assistance for those detained, delivery of food and other aid packages, and providing money to cover administrative fines. Moreover, many citizens used a website and app that helped them identify and vote for candidates most likely to defeat those of the ruling party. Progovernment candidates suffered a surprising setback in the eventual Moscow vote.

Developments in Armenia in 2018 demonstrated once again that digital technology can help generate dramatic democratic change. Citizens effectively used social media platforms, communications apps, and live streaming to advance the largely peaceful Velvet Revolution, forcing the resignation of longtime leader Serzh Sargsyan and ushering in Nikol Pashinyan as prime minister. This in turn cleared the way for snap national elections in December 2018 that represented a clear improvement over previous polls. The new government has since promised to tackle systemic corruption and enhance transparency and the rule of law.

A pivotal struggle to defend and advance basic democratic rights is still unfolding in Hong Kong, where protesters began turning out in June 2019 to oppose a controversial extradition bill and demand a rollback of Beijing’s encroachment on their legal and political rights. Acutely aware of government surveillance, protesters used various techniques to avoid online detection and reprisals, including code words like “picnic” to signify a meeting. After reports emerged that authorities might shut off the internet, demonstrators tested peer-to-peer or mesh networks that send messages through Bluetooth wireless technology instead of relying on full connectivity.

Even in countries where democratic institutions are fairly robust, citizens increasingly rely on digital technologies to participate in political affairs and engage in urgent policy debates. Social media in democracies are used to mobilize public support on a host of issues, such as minority rights, environmental protection, safer gun laws, and improved health care. The onus is on policymakers, the private sector, and civil society to make sure that these positive uses of the internet are protected—at home and abroad—from the forms of malicious interference described above. This will mean years of work to establish clear rules, build tools, and develop programs that meaningfully respond to the grave and growing threat such manipulation poses to the democratic process.

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Freedom on the Net 2019: The Crisis of Social Media

Read the Freedom on the Net 2019 overview essay here. 

Social Monitoring

Social Media Surveillance

Governments are increasingly using digital technology to monitor citizens’ behavior online.

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Explore Countries

View the Freedom on the Net 2019 Countries in Detail page to learn more.

Hero Image Caption: A man holds up a sign saying "Error 404 Demokratie not found" at a rally called “Save Your Internet,” held shortly before the decisive vote on the reform of copyright and internet regulations in the EU Parliament. Opponents of the regulations held protests in about 20 countries. Photo Credit: Sebastian Gollnow/picture alliance via Getty Images.