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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!

Here’s what ordinary Arabs think about the Syrian refugee crisis

September 21, 2016

By Alexandra Siegel and Chris Tenove, Data Analysis by Alexandra Siegel

* This originally article appeared on 19 Sept 2016 on The Washington Post‘s Monkey Cage

How do Arab citizens view this crisis? And how do different actors leverage the refugee issue?

Quantitative and qualitative analysis of 1.6 million Arabic tweets (translated into English when quoted below) about Syrian refugees collected at New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) Lab between February 2015 and July 2016 offer three preliminary insights:

Read more…

At the Policy-Scholarship Divide

June 19, 2016

It can be a challenge for scholars to engage in policy debates, even on topics they have spent years researching. Junior scholars are frequently told that engaging with policymakers is a distraction from tasks that can actually lead to an academic position… and so should be avoided. However, many of us still engage – because we believe it improves our research and our teaching, because it’s interesting, and because we care too much about the issues we research to dispassionately stand back and watch as they are ignored or addressed badly.

Even if one wants to get into the policy fray, it’s often unclear where and how to do so.  As I learned in a 2012 project with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation (which resulted in this series on international justice for OpenCanada), Canadian civil servants often want to engage new expert voices on foreign policy issues. However, they rarely had the opportunity to reach out to researchers and inform them about the policy dilemmas they face. Government websites tend to show the announcements of policies developed a year earlier, by which point it’s far too late to intervene. Unless you are already on the contact sheet of policymakers, it’s hard to contribute.

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For all these reasons, I was very pleased to see Global Affairs Canada partner with SSHRC to mount the International Policy Ideas Challenge 2016–a call for policy proposals from doctoral and postdoctoral researchers. And I’m delighted to have been selected as one of the competition winners.

My policy brief for GAC will tackle an issue I’ve been working on recently, on what I call the “digital extension of conflict.” It will map some of the new vulnerabilities created by our digital communications networks. Today a refugee in Canada may be thousands of kilometers from a war zone but, with her computer open in in front of her, she may be exposed to harassment, extortion and surveillance, or perhaps be named on an ISIS “kill list.” If she is an outspoken activist, she may face malware or denial of service attacks. My brief will suggest some ways that the Canadian government might intervene to address these vulnerabilities, and to empower people to promote accountability for rights violations or peacebuilding abroad.

See here for future updates. But as a preview, I will not be recommending that Canada create its own army of cyber trolls




Democracy Should Be for Election Losers as well as Winners

October 16, 2015

Whatever happens in Monday’s election, many Canadians will wake up disappointed on Tuesday. The local representative we voted for will have lost, or our preferred party will not form government. It’s therefore worth remembering why democracy is the best political system for those who are on the losing side of elections, and not just for the winners.

Three features make losing more palatable and less dangerous in democracies – the legitimacy of elections, checks and balances on executive power, and a democratic culture of inclusion. Unfortunately, the Conservative government has undermined all three.

05/11 - TORONTO, ONTARIO - Laura Hodgins (right) and her sister Jennifer watch results at Sheraton Centre. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatief's room at the Sheraton Centre in Toronto as election results roll in. (RICK MADONIK/TORONTO STAR)

Liberal Party supporters watch results at the Toronto Sheraton Centre on May 2, 2011, as Michael Ignatieff and his party are soundly defeated. Part of a wonderful photo series by RICK MADONIK of the Toronto Star, Watching the Liberals Lose.

An Unfair and Unequal Election

First, in functioning democracies, elections produce a government that is legitimate. We may be disappointed but we do not feel cheated, since each person had an equal opportunity to vote and each vote counted (more or less) equally.

However, with the misnamed Fair Elections Act, the Conservative government undermined fair and equal participation. The Act reduces Elections Canada’s programs to encourage voting, and takes away vouching or Voter Information Cards as sufficient proof of identification at polling stations. These changes are expected to make voting more difficult for thousands of people, with a greater impact on people less likely to vote Conservative, including student, indigenous and poor voters. The Act also reduces Elections Canada’s role in policing electoral laws.

Beginning Tuesday, we need to see how these changes affected the election. If people have faced unequal obstacles to voting, and if any party violated electoral laws as the Conservative party has in the past, we need to root out failings. Whether or not we pursue new voting systems, as the NDP and Liberals have proposed, we need to make sure that Canadian elections are increasingly equal, open and fair.

Undermining Checks and Balances

Second, elected governments face several institutional checks and balances, which help protect vulnerable groups and those on the losing side of elections.

Read more…