When it comes to foreign interference in elections, a precise definition of “interference” is still absent. The most urgent need for clarification on what constitutes acceptable versus illegitimate interference concerns the digital space and online activities. Here, we detail six activities that, when present, can be used to define ‘unacceptable electoral interference.’
Elections in Europe and around the world are increasingly subjected to malicious foreign interference, facilitated in part by the rise and increased use of digital tools and social media platforms. Recent national elections in Europe, as well as the 2019 European Parliamentary elections, proved susceptible to interference designed to erode confidence in electoral outcomes and drive political polarization and social tensions.
While foreign interference operations may not be new, new digital platforms and the internet culture have drastically increased their scale, nature, and potential reach, becoming a risk even for mature democracies.
Over the past decade, state and non-state actors have used the Internet to pursue their political, economic, and military agendas, strategically combining traditional military operations with cyberattacks and online propaganda campaigns. By exploiting the open, anonymous, and borderless nature of digital technologies, social media have provided novel opportunities for bad actors to meddle transnationally. Electoral integrity depends on the sovereignty of elections, and outside actors should not be able to determine the outcome of an election.
One of the challenges in combatting foreign influence operations is that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between normal campaign activity by official arms of domestic political actors and anti-democratic information operations by foreign governments, dubious commercial entities, or national groups. Populist politicians and parties have used the same tools and strategies as foreign agents to drive ultra-nationalist and anti-immigrant rhetoric into mainstream political debates. Interest groups have used social media to target citizens in foreign countries with partisan messages. Often, these efforts and activities overlap, making it increasingly difficult to draw some of the more traditional lines between foreign and domestic political activity, government and non-governmental organizations, and information operations and permissible campaign activity.
Due to its opaque nature, a specific definition of interference is still absent.
Since the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age (KACEDDA) identified this challenge in 2020, many countries have taken steps to identify and respond to malicious foreign interference. However, due to its opaque nature, a specific definition of interference is still absent. It also remains true that Governments routinely seek to influence each other’s affairs – including the management and potential outcome of elections- by means of lobbying, public communications, and financial support. This remains an established and legitimate element of public affairs, and the challenge of mitigating malicious foreign interference on elections remains so long as there is no clearer distinction between the two sets of activities. As noted by the Commission in the KACEDDA final report, “Democratic governments must come together to develop international norms that distinguish legitimate cross-border assistance from illicit or unlawful interventions.”
While foreign interference operations may not be new, new digital platforms and the internet culture have drastically increased their scale, nature, and potential reach, becoming a risk even for mature democracies. In this context, the most urgent need for clarification on what constitutes acceptable/illegitimate interference concerns the digital space and online activities.
This general finding in a recent analysis conducted for the EU provides a useful starting point to distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable foreign engagement in elections:
“The crucial distinction between foreign influence and foreign interference is that the former is open and honest whereas the latter is covert and/or deceptive.”
To this, we can add the important question of intent- governments may interfere in a foreign election or referendum with a view to securing victory for a preferred candidate or outcome. However, foreign interference campaigns may also be designed to sow doubt about the credibility of a process, drive polarization in a society, and undermine trust and faith in democracy as a system of government, and elections as the process at the heart of that system. The two variants, once defined as ‘partisan vs. process’, can be achieved using similar means and methods.
Defining elements of ‘malicious interference’
The presence of the following six characteristics/activities can be used to confirm ‘malicious’ intent and, therefore, define any engagement as ‘unacceptable electoral interference.’
1. Manipulative Online Practices:
Disinformation: the spreading of false or falsified information with intent to mislead, which in elections notably takes the form of:
- Damning content about individual candidates, including ‘deep fakes’, false statements about political party electoral platforms/policy objectives, claims of corruption,
- Attempts to confuse the public about electoral regulations and their enforcement,
- Misleading claims about voter’s rights, voting modalities, locations, and operation of voting locations; claims or violence.
- Narratives that undermine trust in politics and institutions,
- Disinformation designed to inflame opinion on socially divisive issues or developments of significant public interest, either to sway opinion regarding a particular candidate or to generally inflame social tensions and exacerbate divisions.
Falsification of identities and engagements: The objective is to create the impression of authentic behaviours and personas, in order to build audiences who are susceptible to, and able to quickly spread, messages of a foreign actor’s interference campaign. This includes:
- The creation of fake online identities to engage with voters; the purchase of fake ‘likes’ ‘follows’ or ‘shares’,
- The employment of troll farms to amplify messaging;
- The purchase of political advertisements by fake identities/organisations and impersonation of legitimate sources of information- including websites.
2. Illicit Party or Campaign Financing:
The covert funding of a campaign by foreign actors. This can be designed to either increase chances of victory for a candidate whose election may benefit the interests of a foreign actor, or to support candidates whose campaigns may serve as ‘spoilers’, splitting votes, increasing polarization, creating increased risk of violence or insecurity by dividing traditionally unified political groups. It can be done directly or through a proxy, and in either case, it is considered critical in indicating malicious intent.
3. Covert Influence Peddling:
For example, foreign actors covertly hiring communications firms and public relations firms to act or advocate on behalf of certain candidates or in favour of a certain outcome. This also applies to individuals, former officials, politicians or others with means of influence who can be mobilised or induced to work towards outcomes that favour foreign actors.
4. Equipment Manipulation:
Technology is increasingly present in elections: biometric voter lists, electronic voting machines, online voter registration, etc. Such equipment can be used by foreign actors to capture data on voters to facilitate and increase the impact of manipulative online practices, or deployed in such a manner that suggests such data is being captured and weaponised by incumbents or electoral management bodies (EMBs). In the latter case, trust in EMBs and the voting process can be significantly undermined and facilitate the rejection of results and instability; it can also lead to low voter turnout, which can, in turn, affect the integrity of the process.
5. Cybersecurity Attacks against Electoral Infrastructure:
Cyber threats can undermine electoral integrity by either exploiting technical vulnerabilities or creating the perception that such vulnerabilities exist. Online manipulative practices, including disinformation, fall into this category. The other major elements of cyber threats within an electoral process are hacking attacks targeting election technologies or cyber-attacks aimed at specific personnel. Targets or particular relevance during an electoral cycle are numerous and include vote and vote-counting technologies, websites of relevant authorities such as EMBs, voter registration technologies, result transmission and publication systems, or email accounts. It is also conceivable that non-election-specific technologies, such as power grids, could be targeted during elections to cause disruption.
6. Direct Action against Individuals:
In extreme scenarios, individuals with critical roles in an election – candidates, members of the Electoral Commission, members of political parties, journalists – can and have been targeted with intimidation tactics, blackmail, and even assassination. It would evidently be the case that such overtly criminal activities fall decidedly into the category of malicious interference.
The six elements elaborated above can serve as effective ‘red lines’ and a useful measure for defining malicious foreign interference, in legislation or regulation at the EU or national level. Many of them are being addressed separately by EU institutions or Members States, and effective measures are being developed and deployed by Member States, the EU Parliament’s Special Committee on Foreign Interference (INGE) and the Commission’s proposed Defence of Democracy Package.
While such effective countermeasures to the varied and specific modalities of Foreign Interference are crucial, an effort to define Interference and differentiate it from legitimate foreign electoral assistance would be a valuable step and facilitate the future development of regulations and legislations that can effectively protect EU democracy and democratic processes.
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