Understanding Electoral Information Flows: How to Approach the Role of Digital Technologies in Elections?*
I recently had the privilege of attending UNESCO’s World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) celebrations in Ethiopia. The event’s focus on courageous and impactful journalism, together with the remarkable sense of openness and possibility that pervades Addis Ababa these days, provided a refreshing reminder of the incredible work being done to improve human rights around the world and the potential impacts it can have.
At WPFD, I moderated a fantastic panel, “Understanding Electoral Information Flows: Mapping the Impact of Digital Technology from Network Disruptions to Disinformation.” Panelists included Abel Wabella, co-founder of the Ethiopian Zone 9 blogger collective and editor of Gobena Street, as well as representatives from several Global Network Initiative (GNI) member organizations: Muthoki Mumo from the Committee to Protect Journalists(CPJ), Juliet Nanfuka from the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Andreas Reventlow from International Media Support (IMS), and Emilar Ghanidi (Facebook).
In line with the broad theme of this year’s WPFD, “How the Digital Era is Affecting Electoral Communications,” our session sought to map the elections-related impacts of digital technology. This panel built on the work that GNI and UNESCO did last year for a colloquium on “Improving the Communications and Information Ecosystem to Protect the Integrity of Elections.”
Elections-Related Information Flows
In preparation, we developed some taxonomies to help organize our thinking. The first table identifies four categories of elections-related information flows and maps particular mediums and key elections-related actors to each.
The second table identifies and describes a variety of ways that information and communication technology (ICT) can be disrupted or otherwise interfered with. The last column in that table begins to sketch out the implications that each kind of interference can have on elections.
The session explored these taxonomies in depth and contextualized them with panelists’ experiences reporting on, facilitating, and advocating around election protection in various African countries. We heard about the impact of government-ordered network disruptions during elections and public protests, as well as challenges stemming from targeted censorship. We also heard about creative efforts to build dialogue and advance understanding among key elections-related actors before elections take place in order to prevent and mitigate communications interference.
What This Means in Practice: The Ethiopia Case
Together with the audience, we discussed what lessons could be drawn from this analysis that might be relevant to the 2020 Ethiopian elections. We heard about interference that occurred during previous Ethiopian elections, as well as more recent network disruptions in Ethiopia, and about how daunting the logistics of preparing for a free and fair contest in 2020 will be.
Pulling all of this together, it strikes me that there are a few simple-but-important steps that the Ethiopian government can prioritize, starting now, to ensure that ICTs are used to help ensure the effectiveness and credibility of this watershed election, rather than to interfere with or cast doubt upon its legitimacy.
First, the government should clearly and unequivocally declare up front that it will not disrupt the integrity of the ICT ecosystem. Given the disproportionate impacts and unintended consequences of network disruptions, this should not be a hard commitment to make. We have seen elsewhere how such commitments help build trust and improve the conditions for robust, transparent, and credible elections.
Second, the government should pledge to carefully consider the human rights impacts of existing and proposed legislation. The Ethiopian Parliament is reportedly considering a law to address hate speech and disinformation online. Several civil society actors who have managed to see a draft have expressed concern that several articles are written too broadly and could be misused. Meanwhile, there are questions about the need for such a law, including whether the underlying issues are not already covered through existing criminal laws. While hate speech and disinformation are important to address, special care must be given to ensure that responses do not inappropriately stifle legitimate, protected expression, and to mitigate the risk that any resulting measures can be abused. The best way to secure those outcomes is to debate the laws openly, inviting broad engagement from civil society, ICT companies, and other interested stakeholders.
Third, the government should utilize its stated intent to liberalize the telecommunications sector — including by privatizing the long-dominant, state-owned Ethio Telecom — as an opportunity to enhance transparency and protections for human rights. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has established an advisory council to oversee this privatization and proposed a bill to establish a new regulatory body for telecommunications services. These are laudable steps, and the government should ensure that as it modernizes its regulatory approach it includes clear, transparent rules to protect user data, appropriately govern lawful surveillance, and require that any network disruptions be judicially reviewed and authorized according to clear rules consistent with the country’s human rights obligations. To the extent that new licenses are offered, the government should include human rights criteria in the bidding and tendering processes in order to make these priorities clear to potential market entrants.
Finally, the Ethiopian Elections Board should develop an open process to facilitate multistakeholder engagement in the lead-up to the election. The availability and transparency of voting information, campaign messages, and election data are crucial for ensuring a credible election and reducing the potential for post-election violence. This process should include representatives from the telecommunications sector, major internet platforms, civil society, independent media, regional bodies, and election observers, as well as liaisons from the security sector (including the Information Network Security Agency and the National Intelligence Security Service), communications regulators, and other relevant government entities.
The role and impact of ICTs during elections varies across contexts and is evolving over time. Hopefully, our session at World Press Freedom Day provides a helpful framework for understanding these impacts and working to enhance the integrity of upcoming elections. At the end of the day, it is up to governments to establish the right conditions for free and secure elections. While there is no master “playbook,” a clear and rights-respecting legal and regulatory framework; open, up-front dialog with relevant stakeholders; and an enduring commitment to transparency are critical elements that all governments should work to establish. Addressing prevailing challenges to Internet freedom in Ethiopia will help ensure ICTs effectively enhance governance processes, elections, and civic participation, rather than contributing to potential abuses.
*These remarks are written in my personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views of GNI or GNI members.