"Europe's most hackable election": threats of electoral manipulation in the digital age

Anna Isabel Becker / Apr 2019

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Threats of electoral manipulation such as the targeted distribution of “fake news” have been on the constant raise throughout the past decade and in the digital age. Policy-makers, corporates, private citizens and even elections can and do come under cyberattack by hybrid actors (actors which act in anonymous online or offline spaces). The objective of circulating disinformation is the “influencing of the public opinion through the targeted steering of discussions on social media platforms or even the manipulation of news portals" (German Ministry of Defense: 2018).

The European Elections next month are due to their political sensitivity and scope especially vulnerable to attacks and have therefore even been declared as “Europe’s most hackable election”. In the digital era, practically any person consuming digital content can be unconsciously influenced in their decision-making such as voting behaviour. The spreading of targeted fake news, unlabelled political advertisement, manipulated video material (deep fakes) or the use of automated software (social bots) can be influential factors.

Politics, business and society face the growing challenge to protect themselves and each other from manipulation in times of digitalization and widespread online communication. In advance of the European elections 61 percent of EU citizens are concerned that the EU election could be manipulated by cyberattacks. 73 percent are worried about online disinformation (Eurobarometer 2018).

In December the European Commission published the Action Plan on Disinformation, aiming at providing and safeguarding the base for a democratic, well-informed, pluralistic and fact-based online debate. In October 2018 online platforms signed a Code of Practice on Disinformation, committing themselves to combat online disinformation and manipulation of consumers, in the face of their electoral decision-making. Recently, first reports by the platforms were published acknowledging that the platforms are already making progress: more and more fake accounts are being locked and fake news are being deleted. Until the European elections in May 2019, the platforms and the Commission plan to provide monthly updates on further developments in combating disinformation on online platforms.

However, the Commission sees the urgency to speed up actions. A soon-to-be operational European wide Rapid Alert System should give early warning, when political disinformation campaigns are spreading across the EU. Furthermore, national contact points against disinformation will be established across EU member states. In addition to that, political advertisement should be labelled soon, and online consumers should be empowered to detect and report fake news themselves. Already existing tools like “fact-checkers” will be expanded to a European independent network, in order to cooperate with each other and establish an effective EU-wide coverage of factual correction mechanisms.

In mid-March the European Parliament agreed and the Council shortly after adopted new financial sanction rules regarding personal data misuse in political campaigns. The rules will presumably come into effect by April 2019 and imply penalties for pan-European political parties and foundations who break the rules to gain illegal campaigning advantages.

Cyber-attacks from non-state actors outside the EU, that target to influence EU member states in their national elections processes have become quite common. From that point of view France’s president Emmanuel Macron’s recent appeal seems to be reasonable. Macron calls for the creation of an “European Agency for the Protection of Democracies” whereas each EU member would be supported by experts to protect their election process against cyber-attacks and electoral manipulation.

The alarming importance is understandable: In the upcoming European elections around 400 million EU citizens should head to the polls and directly elect their EU representative. Looking at the state of the Union and its present challenges – one can imagine, that the outcome of this election, could be a game changer in European and global politics.


Anna Isabel Becker

Anna Isabel Becker

April 2019

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