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

See all articles by Chris Tenove

Chris Tenove

University of British Columbia (UBC) - Department of Political Science

Jordan Buffie

University of British Columbia (UBC), Faculty of Arts, Department of Political Science, Students

Spencer McKay

University of British Columbia (UBC), Faculty of Arts, Department of Political Science

David Moscrop

Simon Fraser University (SFU)

Date Written: January 16, 2018

Abstract

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

Suggested Citation

Tenove, Chris and Buffie, Jordan and McKay, Spencer and Moscrop, David, Digital Threats to Democratic Elections: How Foreign Actors Use Digital Techniques to Undermine Democracy (January 16, 2018). Research Report, Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, University of British Columbia. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3235819 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3235819

Chris Tenove (Contact Author)

University of British Columbia (UBC) - Department of Political Science ( email )

Vancouver, V6T 1Z1
Canada

Jordan Buffie

University of British Columbia (UBC), Faculty of Arts, Department of Political Science, Students ( email )

Canada

Spencer McKay

University of British Columbia (UBC), Faculty of Arts, Department of Political Science ( email )

Canada

David Moscrop

Simon Fraser University (SFU) ( email )

8888 University Drive
Burnaby, British Columbia V5A 1S6
Canada

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