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What Europe can teach Canada about protecting democracy

April 18, 2018

Chris Tenove and Heidi Tworek

Originally published April 5, 2018, on The Conversation.

What can we do to shield our democracy from digital manipulation? That’s an increasingly urgent question given the activities of Victoria-based AggregateIQ, Cambridge Analytica and Facebook, not to mention Russia, in recent elections in Europe and the United States.

Canada needs to prepare itself for the 2019 federal election, and the Canadian government is starting to talk more seriously about how to address the risks we face.

The issues of disinformation, hate speech and targeted manipulation of voters are complicated, and the policy solutions are not yet clear. What is clear is that Canada needs new inspiration.

Canada often looks to the U.S. government as either a leader or partner. This time, Canada should look to Europe.

Canada’s electoral rules, norms and procedures bear more similarity to many European countries than to the United States. Like them, we keep our election campaigns short. We have strict rules about campaign financing. We also face the same problem: Our citizens use social media platforms created in the U.S. by CEOs who are often unresponsive to non-American concerns about data privacy or electoral interference.

There are at least three areas where Canada can take inspiration from Europe.

Read more…

New Report: Digital Threats to Democratic Elections

January 18, 2018

I’m happy to be releasing a new report, Digital Threats to Democratic Elections: How Foreign Actors Use Digital Techniques to Undermine Democracy. I wrote the report together with Jordan Buffie, Spencer McKay, and David Moscrop. The project was supervised UBC political scientists Mark Warren and Max Cameron, two leading thinkers on democratic institutions. The report is being published by UBC’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

A year ago that we applied for a SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant (see my earlier thoughts on this valuable genre of grant). When we began evaluating research on the topic in May, 2017, there were excellent journalism investigations and academic working papers, but little peer-reviewed research. That is changing, and our knowledge on foreign digital interference and online misinformation is rapidly increasing. I hope our team’s contribution can help provide an overarching view of what we know, and what we still need to learn.


Thanks to Oliver McPartlin for the report design, and for creating this striking cover image.

I’m pleased with our report, but I realize that some of you might not make it through 50 pages of text and over 20 pages of cited references. I have options for you!

And I don’t think I’m giving too much away, but here is the last paragraph of the report:

A serious concern is that foreign and domestic actors, using digital and non-digital tech- niques, are creating vicious circles to undermine democracy. e e ects of these techniques used by foreign actors – such as exacerbating social cleavages and distrust, or undermining fair participation and institutional e ectiveness – can make democratic countries even more vulnerable to future interference. If such vicious circles continue, and the quality and legitimacy of democracy degrades, then it will become increasingly di cult for democratic states to advance their citizens’ interests and resolve social con icts.

Policymakers, citizens, and researchers therefore need to take serious and swi action. If they do so, many responses to foreign interference may also safeguard democracy from being degraded by domestic actors. And by improving the quality of democratic pro- cesses and institutions, we can help make our political systems more resistant to foreign interference. ese virtuous circles should be what we aim for when we address digital threats to democracy. (p. 52)

Update: Gold Medal for ‘Life in the Digital Shadows of the Syrian War’

November 15, 2017

I’m delighted to report that the article Life in the Digital Shadow of the Syrian War, written by Naheed Mustafa, won the award for best investigative article at the 2017 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. Hurray to Naheed and to the team at!


Eva and Catherine at the COPA gala

The article was part of the series The War is Just a Click Away, which I commissioned and edited last year. As I described in an earlier post, the series was part of a project by me and Taylor Owen to look at how to improve discussions of global affairs through collaborations between digital journalists and academic researchers. The project was funded by a SSHRC Connection Grant and support from CIGI, among other sources.

I could not have hoped for a better journalist to work with than Naheed. But I also want to give thanks to the compelling photos by Chloë Ellingson, the receptiveness of Eva and Som and the OpenCanada gang, sharp editorial suggestions from Tyee Bridge, and great research help from Andrés Delgado, Robert Gorwa and John Woodside.

Like many fulfilling projects, this was a team effort.


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The Power of the International Criminal Court?

November 13, 2017

I have been focusing on digital threats to human rights and elections for much of 2017, but I recently returned to my research on victims and the International Criminal Court for a terrific seminar in Florence. The seminar, Power in International Criminal Justice: Towards a Sociology of International Justice, was hosted by CILRAP, the International Nuremberg Principles Academy, the UNDP, and several other organizations. Participants included sitting judges at international criminal tribunals and researchers from around the world (with a surprisingly large New Zealand contingent).

The videos of individual presentations from the seminar are available online.

The idea for the meeting and subsequent book is to step back somewhat from legal and normative studies of the ICC and other tribunals, and to gain some critical leverage on the international criminal justice field through a sociological analysis. I would add that there already are quite a few scholars who pursue sociological research on international criminal justice, but that the conversation among them could be deepened and could be more engaged with traditional legal scholars and practitioners. I hope that this project will advance that goal.


Power in International Criminal Justice workshop, Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence

My contribution to the workshop was “The Agency of Victims: Empowerment and Disempowerment by the ICC.” You can see the video of my talk here. This paper is part of a larger research program that looks at how conflict survivors engage with, assess, and are affected by the ICC. In brief, I argued that the ICC can be empowering for some people, in some contexts, to pursue some justice aims. In my talk, I highlighted several ways that the Court can be disempowering: through actions that put at risk victims (especially potential witnesses and legal participants), or that can undermine or foreclose certain forms of political activity, and that do so with limited responsiveness to victims themselves.

The ICC’s staff and civil society supporters are by no means unaware that the Court poses risks to victims, and they do take steps to address some of these risks. One of my observations is that the ICC can often be disempowering to victims because of the Court’s weakness. By weakness, I refer in particular to its struggles to pursue investigations, protect witnesses, engage communities, and succeed in public relations contests, when it is operating in contexts where it seeks to hold powerful actors to account. Kenya is a clear case of this. The Court had significant difficulties operating in the country, and trial judges ultimately terminated the cases of Ruto and Sang and Kenyatta. The OTP claimed that its cases were undermined by witness intimidation and lack of cooperation by Kenyan state authorities. Now that the cases have collapsed, and neither trials nor reparations are forthcoming, I expect many victim participants might regret the time – and hope – they put into the ICC’s work.

The ICC fares much better when it operates in a country with government support (e.g. in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast, Uganda). Of course, in these situations there is widespread concern about the Court’s undermined and compromised independence.

Such concerns will certainly arise in the two new – and gutsy! – moves that the Court announced last week. The Prosecutor announced on November 3rd that she would seek authorization for a formal investigation in Afghanistan, which could entail investigations of US military activities. On November 9th, Pre-Trial Chamber III authorized an investigation into crimes committed in Burundi or by Burundian nationals since 2015. The judges noted  that, according to estimates, “at least 1,200 persons were allegedly killed, thousands illegally detained, thousands reportedly tortured, and hundreds disappeared.”

An investigation in Afghanistan will provoke the ire and backlash of the United States… or at least those (including the President) who believe the US should be above international rule of law. Expect a diplomatic s***-storm. By contrast, Burundi is a weak state with fewer resources to wage diplomatic war on the ICC. However, the government will make investigations in the country extremely difficult, and put potential witnesses or victim participants at risk. I think the Prosecutor is brave to take on these situations. And I expect both will reveal how, in practice, the power of the ICC is highly constrained.

Off to APSA to Talk about Threats to Democracy

August 25, 2017

I’m headed to San Francisco soon for this year’s annual American Political Science Association conference. As usual, the conference is crammed with interesting talks and panels to attend. I’m particularly keen on a couple panels on “Democratic Inclusion and Globalization” (which I addressed in my dissertation and in some forthcoming papers), as well as a couple panels on digital threats to democracy and human rights.

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The conference also offers a chance to listen and engage with political scientists on broader shared concerns about rising authoritarianism, racism and undemocratic populism. Lots to discuss.

At APSA I will be presenting on the Democracy, Distrust and Digital Publics panel, and sharing some early work from the Hacking Public Opinion project.

That project, which I’m working on with UBC colleagues Jordan Buffie, David Moscrop, Spencer McKay, Max Cameron and Mark Warren, is funded by a SSHRC Knowledge Synthesis Grant. SSHRC just posted all of the synthesis projects on the theme: “How will Canada continue to thrive in an interconnected world and evolving global landscape?” Some really interesting research projects there. Both the APSA conference and the SSHRC knowledge synthesis projects show academics engaged in timely research on current social problems… far from the ivory tower stereotype.

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.

Read more…

Thrilled to Launch ‘The War is Just A Click Away’

October 20, 2016

Illustration by Kevin Tong /

We launched the series The War is Just a Click Away today! It’s one of the fruits of a  SSHRC Connection Grant that Taylor Owen and I received to promote dialogue on issues of global politics.

The series began today with a great longform journalism piece by Toronto Naheed Mustafa. We also worked with CBC’s The Current on a related piece that aired today, and which Naheed produced.

These and other articles will explore the risks and possible responses to these digital connections to war:

People who live far from war may remain connected to it continuously, intimately and sometimes dangerously, through their digital devices. For much of humanity, we can now say that war is just a click away.

These digital connections to conflict are double-edged. Activists can provide assistance and coordinate with people in the midst of conflict, but their communications may be intercepted and their colleagues captured, tortured or killed. Social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter can alert larger publics to human rights violations, but they have also become theatres of war where fighters are recruited, and where violence is stoked through misinformation and ethnic or religious hatred. Digital tools have been developed to help humanitarians identify and assist vulnerable people more quickly than ever before, but can also be used to transfer resources to the groups responsible for violence.

We’ve got more to do on the series, but I’m very appreciative of those who have helped out on the way. In addition to Naheed, I’ve had some great help from research assistants Andrés Delgado, Robert Gorwa and John Woodside. Chloë Ellingson and Kevin Tong contributed some great art. And I’m grateful to Eva and the OpenCanada team. I’m also grateful for support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Centre for International Governance Innovation, the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, the Liu Institute for Global Issues, and the Munk School of Global Affairs.

OK, onward with the series!