Keeping elections free and fair in the age of digital campaigning

This post was written by our Policy Director Craig Fagan and Senior Advisor on Digital Rights Renata Avila.

Free and fair elections lie at the heart of democratic politics. Since representative democracy became the world’s dominant system of government, electoral authorities, parties and citizens have fought — and often struggled — to keep elections fair.

Functional systems have mechanisms to ensure candidates can campaign on a relatively equal basis. Jurisdictions often have rules giving political parties equal airtime to communicate their platforms. Many countries also regulate the volume and timing of political advertising. Electoral spending caps are frequently employed to ensure candidates with the wealthiest backers can’t simply buy their way into power.

Now, with almost half of the world connected to the internet, the art of electioneering is changing radically as campaigns go digital. Billboards and flyers are built in pixels as often as paper. Candidates leverage huge quantities of data to deliver hyper-personalised adverts to voters through social media. Electoral watchdogs struggle to maintain oversight of thousands of ad variations. And online campaign spending often falls outside traditional campaign finance rules.

In short, the mechanisms that previously maintained free and fair elections are being overtaken by new forms of campaigning, spurred by digital innovation.

The political shocks of the US Presidential election and the UK Brexit vote have heightened the sense that digital campaigning can tilt elections — and lack the rules to ensure a fair process. To preserve electoral integrity, we have identified three priority challenges that should be addressed.

1. Experiments social media companies run can undermine elections

News consumption on social media platforms has ballooned in recent years. In 2017, two-thirds of US adults read news on social media. Yet, these platforms still lack accountability and often act in ways that are damaging to their users. Recently, Facebook ran an experiment in six countries, which saw professional news coverage removed from users feeds, cutting a major source of traffic for media outlets. In some cases these changes occurred in the run-up to key elections. Platforms should be transparent about how they distribute information and should not use individual countries as guinea pigs for product development.

2. Platforms don’t serve healthy news diets

Another problem we see is the information ‘diet’ of citizens. People are being separated into narrow segments and flooded with media reinforcing their existing views — so-called ‘filter bubbles’. Our forthcoming research shows that the information each citizen receives on social media can be radically different, even if they follow the same general information sources. The result is a political discourse unanchored from a shared media reality.

At the same time, social media platforms open the door to armies of opinion shapers, human or automated, flooding users with information. In such a saturated media environment, it can be difficult to distinguish misinformation from credible journalism. And the traditional goal of an equal platform for candidates becomes an impossibility. With net neutrality under attack, large broadband companies may soon be left to pick winners and losers on the web — not the democratic ideal.

3. There is a lack of rules around using data for targeted advertising

The trading of personal data has become a massive industry, and as campaigns develop more sophisticated political targeting, they are gathering and using ever increasing volumes of data to do so. We need to ensure there are rules for campaigns using micro-targeted advertising and psychographic profiling, to establish transparency and set boundaries to ensure citizens understand how their data is being used and are not harmed by it.

Moreover, it is essential that in this environment, there are privacy and data protection mechanisms to protect users from the data misuse, or breaches. However, findings show that outside of Europe, Canada and the US, most countries lack comprehensive personal data protections.

These are global problems. Social media has been used in questionable ways to influence elections in Brazil, Kenya as well as the UK, US and beyond. We will explore these issues further in 2018. Civil society, political leaders and citizens must work together to create safeguards to ensure we preserve electoral integrity. It is increasingly clear that the rules that governed elections in the 20th century are not fit for the 21st.

For updates on our work, follow the Web Foundation on Twitter at @webfoundation. You can follow Craig at @craigmfagan, and Renata @avilarenata.

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