Facebook, Twitter, and Co. are misused to manipulate elections. The Munich Security Conference discusses how the heart of democracy can be protected.

Voting is not the only thing this year in the USA. If the Kofi Annan Foundation has counted correctly, around 80 elections will be held worldwide in 2020. And above all, the question hovers: How do you protect them from foreign forces or domestic interests that can mobilize new technologies, social media, and disinformation for large-scale manipulations?

The report by the Kofi Annan Foundation for Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age is trying to provide answers. It was now presented at the Munich Security Conference and created a sense of urgency. The report focused on the global south. Because disputes over the legitimacy of election results often lead to unrest – even bloody ones. And because it can be manipulated rather undetected. There is often a lack of monitoring options and independently operating institutions.

“For the foreseeable future, elections in the countries of the global south will remain focal points for online hate, disinformation, foreign interference, and domestic manipulation,” the report concludes bleakly.

Toomas Hendrik Ilves (DW)Estonia’s former President Ilves has had a painful experience of hacking his country (archive picture 2015)

Africa test area

Toomas Hendrik Ilves, former President of Estonia – a country with extensive experience of attempts to influence and attack foreign powers in the digital sphere – was also at the table when the study was presented. In 2007 there was a large-scale hacker attack that almost paralyzed the highly digitized country. It was directed against state organs, including the Estonian Parliament, the President and various ministries, banks and the media. In 2009, an official of the government-affiliated Russian youth organization Naschi claimed responsibility for the attacks.

In conversation with DW, Ilves takes up the notorious data analysis company Cambridge Analytica. It had not only played a role in the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the election of Donald Trump as US President. According to Ilves, Cambridge Analytica had previously been active in several countries in the global south to manipulate elections on behalf of customers. According to media reports, there were interventions in the election campaigns in Kenya in 2013 and 2017. “When they saw that it worked, they applied their method to the transatlantic area,” said Ilves.

Kenya - renewed elections (Reuters / S. Modola)Kenyan elections 2017 – were voters influenced?

Homework for politicians and legislators

To protect elections as a core element of democracy, the report lists 13 proposals. This includes, for example, calling on candidates and parties to commit to foregoing fraudulent campaigning practices: not using stolen material, not manipulating images. There is also work for legislators: they have to clarify what is considered political advertising at all. And they are supposed to force operators of social media to provide extensive information about the clients of political advertising. The platform operators themselves are to become more transparent and to pass data on to academic institutions and civil society. And above all, they should give the user the opportunity to fundamentally reject political advertising.

Germany Berlin extinguishing center from Facebook (picture-alliance / dpa / S. Stache)In the Facebook deletion center in Berlin. This is where dubious posts and accounts are removed from the platform

There is another way…

Co-author Alex Stamos, formerly head of security at Facebook and now at Stanford University, also had a positive example of how government agencies interact with social media during elections: In the 2017 federal election, Facebook had close ties to the Federal Office for Information Security, BSI, worked together. At that time, Facebook had deleted thousands of fake accounts that had been used to spread false information.


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