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Six Ways to Protect Democracy against Digital Threats in a Year of Elections

Tonusree BasuandTim Hughes|

2024 has been dubbed the “year of elections”, with over four billion people expected to vote across more than 60 elections. This should be a cause for democratic celebration, but instead much of the attention is focused on the specter of democratic vulnerability and decline.

The ubiquity of social media and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) have introduced new challenges to the integrity of elections, including deepfake videos, disinformation campaigns, technology-facilitated violence against women candidates, and micro-targeting of voters by exploiting their data. The World Economic Forum sees misinformation and disinformation, in part driven by the use of unaccountable AI tools and platforms, as the biggest global risk of the next two years. 

Faced with these threats to the integrity of elections and democracy, the open government values of transparency, participation, inclusion, and accountability are more important than ever. As approximately 35 OGP countries go into local or national elections this year, there are significant lessons and tools that open government can provide them. Here are six that relate to tackling digital threats to democracy:

  1. Tackling disinformation is not just a pre-election necessity, but a permanent investment throughout the democratic lifecycle. Many countries have only looked at tackling disinformation ahead of elections, but this short-term approach makes it a near impossible task. Countries that have looked at it more holistically, such as Finland, for example, have developed media literacy modules that help students identify and distinguish amongst misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information. Armenia committed to strengthening its public communication architecture, which includes proactively communicating with the public about its activities, developing response mechanisms to stop the spread of disinformation, and building its institutional capacity for public participation.
  2. Combatting disinformation is a whole of society effort. Governments have an essential role in proactively communicating with the public, supporting a healthy information ecosystem and, where needed, regulating to protect democracy. Civil society plays a key part in pre-bunking, debunking, monitoring disinformation, and increasing media literacy. In light of this, France committed to taking a multi-stakeholder approach to monitoring and tackling disinformation, involving civil society and research institutions.
  3. Addressing disinformation must use a human rights lens not to curb legitimate free speech. Free speech and dissent are essential to the functioning of democracy and they must not be restricted for politically motivated ends under the guise of tackling disinformation. It is essential that laws addressing disinformation are well defined and the authorities that uphold them are independent and accountable. As part of wider plans to tackle disinformation, Ghana has committed to applying a human rights assessment to its legal framework to ensure that it does not stifle free speech.
  4. Oversight and accountability institutions are an important protector and strengthener of democracy. Electoral officials play an important role in monitoring and ensuring the integrity of elections. Well-resourced and mandated information commissioners can help ensure citizens’ data is not misused to target them with political campaigns. In Indonesia’s recent OGP action plan, the General Election Supervisory Agency of Indonesia committed to implementing an election monitoring and supervision system in partnership with civil society organizations and the general public. At the time of writing this post, Indonesia is a few days away from its general elections – and tech platforms such as TikTok have emerged as key political campaign spaces.
  5. Strong, independent national and local media is essential to providing high quality information. By helping to create a healthy media ecosystem and strengthening local and national journalism, governments can ensure that citizens receive accurate and high quality information. Canada committed to a range of activities to tackle disinformation, including exploring new mechanisms that enable private giving and philanthropic support for trusted, professional, non-profit journalism and local news, and supporting the hiring of journalists to provide coverage for under-served communities across Canada.
  6. Digital platforms must be accountable for their role in democracy. Policy efforts such as the UNESCO guidelines, executive order on AI in the United States, and a series of frameworks in the European Union draw on longstanding debates on transparency and accountability of social media platforms, especially as it relates to data privacy, content moderation, and safety. The EU’s code of practice on disinformation and Digital Services Act demonstrated a step forward with the provision of transparency reports on content moderation. However, digital policy analysts have highlighted a lack of investment within platforms to tackle disinformation challenges, especially in non-English speaking markets (several of which have elections this year). Further developments, including the EU AI Act and Meta’s announcement on labeling AI generated images, are good steps to build on, but digital policy experts have also highlighted (see examples here, here, and here) that these steps do not go far enough to protect the rights of the most targeted or vulnerable groups. 

As part of the Open Gov Challenge, the OGP Steering Committee and OGP Support Unit are calling on OGP members to strengthen transparency and public oversight of AI and data protection frameworks in order to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms of digital technologies to society. It is essential that governments and civil society work together towards open, accountable digital governance, and OGP will continue to support these efforts.

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