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New project: a digital threat model for democratic elections

June 20, 2017

Are legitimate democratic elections possible in the digital age? The headlines suggest not. There are continual reports of Russian hacking and leaking to influence elections in the US and France, of bot armies massing to promote Trump or Corbyn or Brexit, of troll networks that threaten democracy and rights activists, of corporate big data operations that hijack people’s psychological weakness to change their votes… and all of these get thrown into a stew of fake news and filter bubbles.

It seems as if 2016 was the year that the internet broke democracy. But do we really know that foreign actors can flip elections with digital tricks, or that the integrity of democratic elections has been radically compromised? And if so, what are the most serious threats, and the most promising solutions?

I’m happy to announce that I will be coordinating a research project this summer to answer just these questions. Or, at least, to pull together the best insights available from today’s political science analysis.Funded by a SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant (more on this below), our team at the University of British Columbia will be evaluating what we know and don’t know about how foreign actors can use digital techniques to compromise democratic elections. We’ve got a great group. Mark Warren and Max Cameron, two leading thinkers on democratic institutions, are the principal investigators. Other faculty advisors include elections gurus Richard Johnston and Paul Quirk, digital media and international affairs whiz Taylor Owen, and Lisa Sundstrom (who is co-leader of a UBC research cluster on “crises in democracy”). We’ve also got a few digital tech thinkers from outside the academy to keep us honest – David Ascher, Alexandra Samuel, and Phillip Smith.

The worker bees of the project, along with me, are recent PhD grad and public provocateur Dave Moscrop, current PhD student Spencer McKay, and incoming MA Jordan Buffie.

We are starting from a few observations. First, while there is intense coverage of digital techniques used to target democratic elections, there is much less clarity about their impact. So, while there are terrific investigations by journalists — and by “academic investigators” like the folks at the Citizen Lab and Political Bots — that track down what is happening and who is doing it, we really don’t know the electoral consequences.

Let me give an example. In an important investigative piece, The great British Brexit robbery: how our democracy was hijacked, the journalist Carole Cadwalladr ties together the big data consultancy/psyops company Cambridge Analytica, the US billionaire and Trump-backer Robert Mercer, and AggregateIQ – “an obscure web analytics company based in an office above a shop in Victoria, British Columbia.” AggregateIQ received millions of dollars from campaigns that pushed for Brexit, and may have subverted UK’s electoral laws. But does the micro-targeted advertising of AggregateIQ and Cambridge Analytica really change electoral outcomes? Maybe, but I’ve yet to see strong evidence.

Similarly, there is excellent new research by on bot-driven messaging and misinformation in recent elections, but little analysis of their impact on election outcomes. Do we know if they have similar or different effects to traditional advertising blitzes?

In sum, there is a general sense that elections are being “stolen” or “hacked”. But does this mean that digital techniques are likely to change election outcomes? Or might they be more a threat to other democratic goods, like the legitimacy of democratic institutions, the political participation of vulnerable citizens, or the possibility of rational agenda-setting on policy issues? Are these threats more serious in different electoral systems?

That’s what we are going to digging into.

Which gets me back to the SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant. These grants give modest amounts of funding ($25,000) to incentivize an important but neglected form of knowledge production. We are all familiar that there is a vast amount of academic work published every year… heck, every day. But there is rarely dedicated funding to evaluate and publicize the state of research on important topics. The SSHRC synthesis grant prompts researchers to:

  •      Assess the big picture of research in an area, rather than focusing on what is needed for their own narrow research program;
  •      Foster big picture thinking on an issue among faculty and student teams;
  •      Make that synthesis public – so others can benefit or build on it;
  •      Communicate that research to policy-makers, the public, or stakeholder groups (which we will do in ways including policy reports and media interventions);

So, thanks to SSHRC for the grant, and thanks to my colleagues for joining me in helping me think about attempts to hack democracy.

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