Election integrity is high on the G7 agenda following foreign hacking and viral disinformation campaigns. Christopher Sands, senior research professor, Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, explores the measures being taken to defend democracy
Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election raised the spectre of foreign intervention in democratic processes. False information designed to spread virally through social media, sensitive information leaks on candidates (or threats thereof) and even electronic tampering with voting machinery called official results into doubt. Russia and China were often blamed but denied responsibility, and investigations failed to restore public confidence in election integrity.
Unsurprisingly, then, G7 leaders – all heads of democratically elected governments – have placed election integrity on their agenda. It was discussed indirectly by G7 leaders at Taormina in 2017 in terms of defending against cyberattacks on critical infrastructure.
At Charlevoix in 2018, discussions advanced to permit consensus on the Charlevoix Commitment on Defending Democracy from Foreign Threats, which committed to definitions and coordinated responses to election interference. The G7 pledged that members would:
- Respond to foreign threats, together and individually, to meet the challenges facing their democracies;
- Strengthen cooperation to prevent, thwart and respond to malign foreign interference aimed at undermining the democratic processes and the national interests of a G7 member;
- Establish a G7 rapid response mechanism to help identify and respond to threats, including through sharing information, analysis and identifying opportunities for coordinated responses;
- Share lessons learnt and best practices with governments, civil society and the private sector and develop initiatives that promote free, independent and pluralistic media, fact-based information and freedom of expression;
- Engage directly with internet service providers and social media platforms regarding malicious misuse by foreign actors, to improve transparency and prevent the illegal use of personal data and privacy breaches;
- Support public learning and civic awareness to promote critical thinking and media literacy on intentionally misleading information and improving online security and safety; and
- Ensure transparency on funding for political parties and advertising, especially during election campaigns.
At Biarritz, the timing might now be ideal for a forward-looking discussion of collective actions. National elections are scheduled in Canada and Japan in 2019, in the United States in 2020, Germany in 2021, France in 2022 and Italy in 2023. Britain’s next election must take place by 2022 but may come sooner.
G7 leaders have three options related to election integrity that can be summed up as the three Ds of detection, defence and deterrence.
Advance detection of interference is difficult but necessary. Officials have learned a good deal through forensic investigations of past election interference. At Biarritz, leaders could discuss the sources and methods of election interference and the vulnerabilities identified by security services as potential avenues of attack. Large platforms including Google, Facebook and Twitter have undertaken measures to address the spread of false information and the use of their platforms to incite hatred of groups and even violence. These independent actions deserve the leaders’ scrutiny, and almost certainly do not go sufficiently far to satisfy the leaders or their electorates that upcoming elections are safe from outside disinformation campaigns.
The challenge of defending elections from foreign interference is highly technical. At Biarritz, G7 leaders should compare what their respective governments have done to date and, as called for at Charlevoix, share best practices and use the G7 to reassure voters that they are acting to reduce interference and respond swiftly and effectively when it occurs. The leaders noted at Charlevoix the importance of promoting critical thinking as part of voter education to inoculate the electorate against viral disinformation. One year later, an in-depth update on these efforts to defend electoral processes through voter participation in challenging false information would be timely.
The most controversial response to election interference has been deterrence, promoted by the United States. President Donald Trump ordered a review of US cyber defences in May 2017, which included federal, state and local government systems as well as private networks. Based partly on that review, in September 2018 Trump unleashed the US military and security agencies to develop tactics for offensive cyberattacks on foreign systems.
US cyber strategy acknowledges that the vulnerability of democratic systems is their relative openness, with a free flow of information that can be tampered with to influence voter decisions or perceptions of the legitimacy of election outcomes. Yet authoritarian systems have a corresponding vulnerability resulting from restrictions and controls on information and communication designed to prevent criticism of the regime. An offensive cyber operation that opens up space for dissidents and critics to communicate with each other and the public could seriously threaten authoritarian regimes.
As during the Cold War, within the G7 US willingness to go on the offensive makes other leaders nervous about the risks of escalation and being caught in the crossfire. This dynamic will return at Biarritz over deterrence to defend the integrity of electoral systems. Yet this discussion must happen among the leading technologically advanced democracies, to prove once again the value of the G7.