Digital Threats to Democratic Elections: How Foreign Actors Use Digital Techniques to Undermine Democracy
Research Report, Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, University of British Columbia
80 Pages Posted: 2 Oct 2018
Date Written: January 16, 2018
This report addresses key questions about foreign actors’ use of digital communication technologies (DCTs) to interfere in democratic elections. It does so by employing the schema of a cyber-security “threat model.” A threat model asks the following key ques- tions: What in a system is most valued and needs to be secured? What actions could adversaries take to harm a system? Who are potential adversaries, with what capacities and intentions? What are the system’s key vulnerabilities? What will be the most effective counter-measures to address these threats? The authors of this report draw on existing research to engage these questions to make several observations. First, foreign actors employ four key digital techniques. The report details how foreign actors pursue hacking attacks on systems and databases; mass misinformation and propaganda campaigns; micro-targeted manipulation; and trolling operations. Second, the threat of digital interference is not limited to its impact on electoral outcomes. Foreign actors using digital techniques can undermine three critical elements of democratic elections: fair opportunities for citizen participation, vibrant public deliberation, and effective rules and institutions. Third, domestic actors often serve as de facto 'partners' of foreign actors who use these techniques to interfere in elections. Fourth, countries differ in the extent to which they suffer from key forms of vulnerability to digital interference: deficits in digital literacy; shortcomings in the design and policies of social media platforms; high levels of political polarization; and electoral regulations; and the lack of international laws and practices to address cyber-attacks and information operations. Finally, there are many possible counter-measures to digital interference, but no proven solutions.
Keywords: democracy; elections; foreign interference; social media; cybersecurity; privacy; surveillance
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