Online Election Interference Widespread, Report Reveals

As the British government refuses to release a report on Russian election meddling, a new report has revealed that online electoral interference is rife around the world.

Indeed, twenty-six out of 30 national elections in the last year were subject to online interference by foreign governments or domestic actors, a report from democracy watchdog Freedom House concludes.

Techniques include propagandistic news, outright fake news, paid commentators, bots and the hijacking of real social media accounts.

“Many governments are finding that on social media, propaganda works better than censorship,says Freedom House president Mike Abramowitz.

“Authoritarians and populists around the globe are exploiting both human nature and computer algorithms to conquer the ballot box, running roughshod over rules designed to ensure free and fair elections.”

In the run-up to the U.S. November 2018 midterm elections, for example, Microsoft discovered that a Russian military intelligence unit had faked US Senate and Republican-linked think tank websites to trick visitors into revealing sensitive information and passwords.

Russian groups also spread disinformation across Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube during the May 2019 European Parliament elections.

Meanwhile, Freedom House found plenty of election interference from domestic actors. Political leaders employed individuals to surreptitiously shape online opinions and harass opponents in 38 of the 65 countries studied. Technical measures were also used to restrict access to news sources and legal measures were taken to punish regime opponents.

The research coincides with a refusal from the British government to publish a report by Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee into Russian attempts to influence both polls.

The report was completed in March and passed to No 10 more than three weeks ago. However, the prime minister has refused to release it, and it will now not be made public until after the next general election on 12 December.

Despite the fact that the report’s already been cleared by intelligence agencies, the government line is that releasing it now would risk ‘undermining our national security’.

It’s hard to believe that publication of the report would be delayed if it concluded that there was no Russian interference. If it does indeed indicate that there was online manipulation, though, the post-election fall-out could be severe – unless, that is, the report gets leaked first.

In this context, though, I’ll give the last word to the 70 analysts who authored the Freedom House report. “The electoral authorities in most countries have yet to build sufficient oversight mechanisms for identifying and thwarting this type of electoral interference,” they write.

“The risk of punishment for skirting the relevant rules generally pales in comparison with the gains of winning an election.”