On 8 February, UNESCO and the Global Initiative Network (link is external) (GNI) held a forum at UNESCO HQ in Paris to examine how Internet could support electoral integrity, as well as counter threats such as disinformation and internet shutdowns which reduced the trust and knowledge of voters.
The Colloquium “Improving the information ecosystem to protect the integrity of elections” brought together UNESCO Member States, UN Representatives, national electoral authorities and media organizations with board members of the GNI.
The GNI is a multi-stakeholder organization of information and communication technology companies, civil society organizations, academics, and socially responsible investors.
In his opening remarks, Mr. Getachew Engida, UNESCO Deputy Director spoke about preserving freedom of expression and the value of effective self-regulation in regard to problems on the Internet in times of elections.
Ms. Judith Lichtenberg, Executive Director of the GNI, underlined the need to forge a common approach to protect freedom of expression online especially during elections time when ICT innovations are being abused by malicious actors and internet services are restricted or even shut down.
Participants addressed issues concerning digital manipulation of election processes, including the impact of malware attacks. Furthermore, the Colloquium also sought to assist electoral assistance providers in contributing with ideas on how to improve their electoral programs and activities.
The potential sensitivities around interruptions of digital information during vote counting, and the difficulty of monitoring the “black box” of political advertising based on datamining and targeted profiling, were highlighted by Patrick Costello, Head of Division of European External Action Service at the European Union.
Noting the varying degree of digitalization of electoral processes across countries, Simon Pierre Nanitelamio, Deputy Director of the UN’s Electoral Assistance Division, highlighted the role multi-stakeholder consultation to bridge the gaps between differently equipped countries.
In a context where economic growth depends increasingly on Internet access, as affirmed in the UN Sustainable Development Agenda, Constance Bommelaer, Senior Director of The Internet Society ISOC, pointed out that shutdowns can cause long-lasting and costly effects on societies and on user’s trust.
Large-scale internet shutdowns and the blocking and filtering of online content has been seen to be on the rise in the last five years, as noted in the latest edition of the World Trends in Freedom of Expression and Media Development
Internet providers’ difficult position to cope with internet shutdowns during elections was highlighted by Yves Nissim, Head of Transformation and Operation in Corporate Social Responsibility from Orange. Mr He commented that companies are frequently unable to avoid demands to interrupt services because of license agreements and risks to their employees’ safety, but they sought to be transparent about receiving such demands.
Fernando Garcia, Executive director of Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales a Mexican-based network that defends digital rights and Aiste Zilinskiene, Member of the Central Electoral Commission of Lithuania, drew upon citizen digital experiences to hold political actors accountable via elections. They also raised awareness about the threats to privacy posed by malware attacks surveilling journalists and human rights activists.
Nana Gyan-Apenteng, head of Ghana’s National Media Commission and chair of the African Communications Regulation Authorities network signaled the potential to apply electoral laws to media at the point where social media content emerged onto traditional media platforms.
The UNESCO-GNI Colloquium also featured together representatives from technology companies to discuss what can be done to enhance the quality of public information during such elections in order to counter misinformation.
Steve Crown, Microsoft’s Vice President and Deputy General Counsel, pointed out the moral challenges around setting national or regional regulations given the global nature of internet and the potential for legislation to be implemented as censorship.
Ludovic Peran, Policy and Government Affairs Manager of Google, shared the company’s initiatives to address fake news, such as the development of fact-checking tools, quality guidelines and the tracking of misleading sources. Meanwhile, Andy O’Connell, Public Policy Manager of Facebook stated that his company had pledged transparency in paid political advertising.
He also noted Facebook’s work to limit the economic incentives of “fake news”, and to remove accounts with false profiles.
The importance of strengthening media and information literacy as part of voter education, was raised by. Divina Frau-Meigs, UNESCO Chair Savoir Devenir, Nouvelle Sorbonne, Paris. She said there was a need to teach young people that casting a ballot was not the same as “liking” something on social media, and encouraged “digital citizenship” as a way to boost the integrity of elections.
UNESCO hopes to follow up through highlighting the incompatibility of Internet shut-downs with the free flow of information that is needed for elections.
The Organisation will also seek to work on methodologies that can benefit election stakeholders who monitor electoral communications, to provide a knowledge base for policy on regulation and self-regulation.
Further work will entail training journalists to be able to give deeper coverage of the role of social media in relation to polls, including ways to find and rebut disinformation online.
Another follow up is promoting the value to election integrity of programmes in media and information literacy.
The over-regulation of digital electoral communications that can disproportionately limit freedom of expression and privacy, is an area where UNESCO can play a monitoring role.