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Safeguarding elections in the digital age

In January 2020, the Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age launched its report at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos calling for urgent action by governments, business and civil society to protect democracy from digital threats and setting out actionable recommendations in five major areas: polarization, hate speech, disinformation, political advertising and foreign interference. The need is pressing; approximately 80 elections are scheduled to be held in 2020, many in countries where manipulation of the internet and social media is both a distinct possibility and a real threat. Under normal circumstances, robust actions as proposed by the Commission would be required to ensure the integrity of these elections and the legitimacy of the outcomes. 

These, however, are not normal circumstances, and some of these 80 elections may be in doubt; the COVID-19 crisis is straining established democracies and threatening to overwhelm institutions of governance in others, while providing us all with further examples of the virality, velocity and viciousness of misinformation. Holding elections amidst a global pandemic presents the electoral integrity community with unique challenges, but also lessons; in responding to the crisis, businesses and communities across the world are reminding us daily of the power of social media and the internet to engage, empower and educate citizens.

The importance of making democratic processes and institutions fit for the digital age is more urgent than ever, yet comes with great challenges. In 2018 Mr. Kofi Annan – concerned with the impact of social media and technology on elections – convened a group of experts to identify and frame the challenges to electoral integrity arising from digital technologies, and to develop policy measures to address them. This piece will briefly discuss some of the main findings and recommendations in the report, the full version of which is available here.

First, the team found that many of the ills the internet and social media are accused of – such as extreme polarization of democratic politics – predate the rise of social media and the internet. Fake news and hate speech have been around for centuries, and there has never been a time when citizens in democracies all shared the same facts or agreed on what constitutes a fact. As the report notes: “Democracy is needed precisely because citizens do not agree on fundamental facts.”

However, while social media may not be the cause of current challenges to democratic values and processes, they exacerbate and intensify them to dangerous levels. For example, legislators and parliamentarians from Europe to Latin America expressed concern to the Commission that the speed and ubiquity of social media create pressures to respond immediately to demands, news or grievances, and thereby undermine the mandate of parliaments to deliberate and to set policy agendas.

The Commission also found that democracies in the Global South are most vulnerable to digital threats, and expressed concern that their elections will be focal points for networked hate speech, disinformation, external interference and domestic manipulation. “Much of global attention has been on digital threats and foreign manipulation of elections afflicting Western countries,” explained Commission Chair, Laura Chinchilla, while in the Global South, “new democracies or those in transition are particularly vulnerable to digital threats but... promising democratic developments are also taking place.” 

Finally, while exploring comparative vulnerabilities, the Commission found that countries with pre-existing polarization, a history of violence, and highly partisan media prove to be particularly susceptible to the weaponization of social media. The Commission’s report suggests building on these three factors to index the vulnerability of elections to the weaponization of social media and thus help international organizations, electoral observation groups, donors and others to best understand where the threats lie and how resources should be directed.

Based on these findings, the Commission recommends a series of measures to protect electoral integrity and identifies specific actions to be taken both by public authorities and internet platforms. The recommendations speak to three major challenges: the need for more information, greater collaboration, and increased regulation.

The need to build shared norms around the acceptable use of digital technologies in elections is a particular challenge and one that will be taken up by the Kofi Annan Foundation as it moves to implement several recommendations intended to fill normative gaps. These include calls for:

  • Governments to establish an international convention regulating cross-border engagement to distinguish legitimate electoral assistance from illicit or unlawful interventions.
  • Industry, governments and civil society actors to create a global code of conduct defining the role of political consultancies and vendors of election equipment.
  • The electoral integrity community to create norms and standards for transnational political campaign consultants, including public relations and strategic communication firms, and digital marketers.

Over the coming months, and in partnership with key partners including the IPU, the Foundation will convene multi-stakeholder dialogues to develop the standards and norms identified above and to advocate for their adoption. As Annan noted that “technology does not stand still, and neither should democracy” in working to implement the recommendations of his final policy initiative, we can deliver his vision of a world in which all people have a say in how they are governed, and by whom. 


The Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age


Declan O’Brien
Programme Coordinator
Elections and Democracy Programme
Kofi Annan Foundation
email [email protected]