20 February 2023

Last Wednesday was one of those days where we found out what we already kind of knew. A consortium of journalists published the results of an undercover investigation into a group known as ‘Team Jorge’ that claims to have had covert involvement in 33 elections internationally. 

While it might have been a bit of a shock. It wasn’t much of a surprise. 

“I mean in principle it is of course a spectacular story, but it’s not entirely new. This has been going on for a while, with groups like Cambridge Analytica directly linked to those cases. And even before in Latin America, you saw cases like this starting in the early 2000s.” says Peter Wolf of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

“This case is one example of how things are changing.”

So what can we do about it?

Solutions to The ‘Team Jorge’ Challenge

Well, for one thing there are regulatory updates like the Digital Services Act, which will require compliance from digital platforms by 2024. Then there’s the Code of Practice on Disinformation, which those same platforms signed in June 2022, and should now already be in compliance with.

“Certainly regulation is one thing — and protecting institutions is another,” says Wolf. “There’s also the continuous need to review what we’re doing and also look back and review like every two years and ask — does this regulation work? You have to look back more often now at how efficient it is and ask what the loopholes are, because things are changing so fast.”

Just like the problem itself, the solution has to have a multi-pronged approach.

“I believe that platform partners, but also states and the politicians themselves need to take action,” says Patrick Penninckx, head of department for Information Society at the Council of Europe. “They (platforms) should act against bots and fake accounts, clearly labelling them so that their activities could not be confused with human interactions. That being said, these measures should also be enacted in full respect of the Council of Europe’s standards — notably the right to freedom of expression, anonymity and confidentiality of private communication.”

“States and politicians should furthermore require platforms to put in place clear, transparent, foreseeable policies for ensuring the integrity of those services and countering misrepresentation and the intentional spread of political disinformation. Those are the recommendations that we have. We believe that content moderation by the platforms must be transparent and avoid any discrimination based on political views, providing a network that is neutral in terms of its users.”

The Changing Landscape

Although the broad findings of the investigation were nothing new, it did offer an updated window into the shape and form these operations take, and what else might need to be done.

The primary revelation was perhaps the sophisticated software available to non-state actors. If these people can access email and even supposedly encrypted telegram accounts of politicians like they’re nothing, then what does that mean for the rest of us, and the integrity of our democracies?

“Of course, it’s going to be important for whoever is on the good side to have similar tools and employ things like AI equally as effectively,” says Wolf. “The other side obviously uses them more and more. So it’s a bit of an arms race and it seems these guys have a bit of an advantage on this.”

Another notable takeaway was the diverse methodologies at work, and in unison.

We’ve all heard of troll farms and bots and could likely have assumed that operations like this were automated to a large degree. But to see behind the scenes of an organisation that can bring thousands of fake profiles to bear, all with deep backgrounds, while simultaneously penetrating the private communications of an individual, is disconcerting to say the least.

Yet while this new (digital) environment for political communications is more complicated, it isn’t all bad.

A Double Edged Sword

“There are some positive implications that the new campaigning environment can be more effective. Now politicians and other campaigners can reach and speak to more voters directly with the help of social media and online platforms,” says Penninckx.

“But on the other side, the negative side, I would say, is the micro-targeting of voters with personalised messages, which may involve different forms of manipulation.”

And it doesn’t stop at the targeting of voters or weaponizing chaos against the general public. 

“Of course, what you’ll also see in this case is the targets have been specifically the political parties and their campaigns,” says Wolf. “And here there is certainly a limit to what the states can do.”

“You cannot force parties to protect themselves. You can only encourage cyber hygiene and make them aware that those kinds of things are out there, and that protective measures are needed.” 

Then of course there’s the aforementioned fact-of-the-matter need to stay ahead of the game in terms of technological sophistication and the application of things like AI.

In this regard, democracy is just one arena in a technological “arms race” that touches every corner of society. But that arena needs to be heavily weighted when considering how we allocate resources, as losing the integrity of democratic institutions means losing virtually everything else.

Staying Out Ahead

While the problem is no-doubt daunting and exceedingly complex. It’s not insurmountable. It’s just about staying ahead of the curve, and Europe, as a whole, would seem to be doing better than most.

Time will tell however, whether the measures being taken are enough to effectively counteract bad actors. And even then, it’s only ever ‘for now’. Preserving democracy in the face of digital threats, will require constant innovation and action.

“I think we’re only just seeing the beginning,” says Wolf. “The Digital Services Act, for example, is only just coming into effect, and we still have to see how well it works. How much is still building on measures in place and how much is already being circumvented? Finding out is certainly going to be interesting and I guess that’s a little bit of what we’re going to see in the future.”

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