Free, fair and open elections help in strengthening the basic tenets of a democratic society: a place where the electorate trusts that the elected government reflects an outcome of an open and transparent public debate. Protecting the sanctity of an election thus assumes paramount importance for a country and its citizens. Threats to elections have assumed alarming proportions in countries around the world. The threat can be analysed along two distinct dimensions: cyber attacks that target systems and data to interfere with the basic electoral process or voting technology, and threats that influence and manipulate voting pattern and voter mindset.
In the case of the first threat, the very possibility of this being a reality will undermine the legitimacy of various elected regimes and governments that loathe admitting its existence, at least in the public domain. The possibilities, nevertheless, are vast and have sporadically reared their head across the last two presidential elections in America. Potential disruptors are using carefully crafted digital tools to sow doubts about the sanctity of elections among the electorate. This proves not only more potent than traditional forms of attack but is also much cheaper and more difficult to identify and prosecute.
The second threat can be more clearly visualized and broken down into three further sub-categories: targeted hacks and leaks to influence public opinion, hyped-up fake news and data and surveys to sway last-minute voting patterns, and psychometrically targeted messaging based on mined user data, such as in the Cambridge Analytica case.
In today’s digital age, a misinformation campaign can discredit and overthrow an elected regime much faster than nuclear or conventional warfare. Gaps between governance and public aspirations, coupled with longstanding social injustice and vulnerabilities, render societies highly susceptible to subversion. Citizens are incessantly bombarded with often unverified, decontextualised information from oversaturated media markets which easily resonate with the raw emotions caused by various social fissures. Mischaracterisation, lies and biased representation are not new problems in politics, but social media and online platforms have given them an unprecedented reach and varying degrees of authenticity, making it an outsized threat to the development of the well-informed citizens that democracy requires.
The approach towards addressing the threats of disinformation (as well as other forms of subversion) should involve understanding the vulnerabilities of the electorate and focus not only upon the rational solutions but also the emotional. Elections can’t be secured merely by building up a robust technological firewall and fact-checking mechanisms. It sorely needs a robust participative democracy where the electorate and the elected are not separated from each other by institutional mechanisms, bureaucratic red tape and gross governance failures for five long years. This leads to distrust, frustration and confusion, and the electorate are sitting ducks for data analytic firms, bots and information manipulators just before an election or a referendum.
Disinformative outlets very smoothly alternate between factual and emotional disinformation. They are echoed by mainstream media outlets, often with respective affiliations and funding. The use of hyperbole and insinuations increase traffic, generate likes and shares, and translate into higher revenue. The manipulative efforts have been well documented in consecutive U.S. elections, Brexit vote and more recently, the Indian elections.
The stakes are high, and they are worth fighting for. Freedom of speech, thought and right to choose our representatives should not be overridden by artificial intelligence, data miners and creators of fake news and misinformation campaigns. With the ever increased dependence on online channels and social media platforms, the governments are becoming vulnerable, and so is the electorate. The time to begin an honest discussion for course correction is now.