European lessons for tackling election interference

This commentary is also posted on the web site of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

This is another commentary in a series developed by the 2020 Elections Project of the Center for a New American Security and the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Ethics and the Rule of the Law and Annenberg Public Policy Center. The project culminates in a September 17, 2020, virtual symposium on foreign interference and election integrity. To read more about the symposium and register, go here

Russia’s interference in the November 2016 U.S. presidential election served as a wake-up call for Europe about the rising threats facing free and fair elections. After witnessing the dramatic events in the United States, a number of national governments and the European Union scrambled to protect against similar interference in upcoming elections in Europe. With a multitude of elections having occurred in Europe since, these governmental efforts can provide valuable lessons for the United States as it gears up for its presidential election in November.

Election Security: A New Paradigm for EU Policymakers

The most striking example of foreign interference in a European election to date was the hacking of Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche campaign during the 2017 French presidential election and the subsequent dissemination of the stolen information on social media. Isolated reports of interference have also been recorded in other cases—such as the 2016 Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom and the 2017 Catalan independence referendum in Spain. Though other European elections have been mostly spared from overt forms of foreign interference, Russian disinformation and cyber interference remain persistent threats to the integrity and functioning of European democratic processes. Beyond cyber and disinformation efforts, Russia is also reportedly engaged in various efforts to bolster European far-right parties and fringe movements, using various tactics including non-cyber means.

After witnessing the dramatic events in the United States, a number of national governments and the European Union scrambled to protect against similar interference in upcoming elections in Europe.

In response to these challenges, several European countries have sought to upgrade their election security and to combat disinformation. For example, the Netherlands banned the electronic counting of votes ahead of its March 2017 parliamentary elections after reports of software-related vulnerabilities. In the UK, a new National Security Communications Team was set up after the June 2017 snap elections to combat disinformation by states and other actors. Meanwhile, Germany carried out cybersecurity stress tests against its electoral system prior to its September 2017 elections to ensure the integrity and authenticity of election data. And Sweden, which held general elections a year later, in September 2018, quickly prioritized election security and created a whole-of-society agenda to protect its upcoming election.

The EU, too, has taken several notable steps in recent years to address cybersecurity and disinformation, despite the limitations of its electoral purview, with a particular focus on shoring up the European Parliament elections in May 2019. These measures have included efforts to improve coordination of actions and information sharing between member states, cybersecurity preparedness efforts, debunking false Russian claims and disinformation campaigns, and engaging social media companies and technology platforms on a voluntary code of practice (with mixed results).

European preparedness for election interference has markedly improved in the past years, though the issue certainly remains a serious one.

As a result of these efforts, European preparedness for election interference has markedly improved in the past years, though the issue certainly remains a serious one. In particular, the rise of domestic anti-European narratives among nationalist political movements is an especially worrisome development throughout the continent. At the same time, new and evolving challenges in Europe stemming from coronavirus-related disinformation and increased Chinese political influence campaigns will require additional government action going forward.

Lessons from the European Experience

The European experience with tackling election interference in the form of disinformation and cyberattacks can provide useful lessons for the United States. Among the key lessons from Europe worth paying close attention to are:

Actively engage with the private sector

At both the national and EU levels, examples of relatively constructive government collaboration with social media companies and technology platforms can be found. For example, ahead of its elections in September 2018, Sweden created a dedicated Facebook hotline for election officials to quickly report fake government Facebook pages. Meanwhile, major companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google signed on to the EU-wide Code of Practice on Disinformation, which was rolled out in September 2018. This first-ever voluntary pledge contains specific language on ad transparency as well as on identifying and closing fake user accounts. While the European Commission acknowledges that “meaningful progress” has taken place, it is still urging further steps from many of the relevant companies and is currently contemplating a new Digital Services Act to regulate online content such as hate speech. Even if the United States is less likely to police what is fake news or not, having more regular and formalized dialogue and information sharing with social media companies and technology platforms could allow the U.S. federal government to more easily notify companies to take action and hold them accountable. A recent announcement that major technology firms, including Facebook, Twitter, and Google, have formed a new coalition to jointly work among each other and with the U.S. government to protect the 2020 presidential election is a welcome development in this regard.

Consider the protection of elections a top national security issue

Several member-state governments and the EU have designated the protection of elections from foreign interference a top national security issue and therefore treat election systems and processes as critical infrastructure. For example, in his September 2018 State of the Union address, then–European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spoke of the importance of ensuring “free and fair elections” as a key theme. Other European leaders have taken a similar approach. This has the dual effect of helping to ensure that sufficient attention and resources are dedicated to guarding against potential interference and of deterring potential attackers. Equally important are communicating clearly to the public the risk of election interference and identifying potential perpetrators in order to raise awareness among citizens. In the United States, despite noteworthy efforts by the Department of Homeland Security and other federal government agencies ahead of November, the clear lack of leadership and the many mixed messages from the White House remain problematic and counterproductive from an election security standpoint.

Support political parties and campaigns

There are several cases of European governments actively seeking to assist political parties and campaigns with cybersecurity. For example, in France, the government provided parties with a list of vetted, independent cyber experts. In the UK and Germany, the governments offered cyber experts to help parties address technical issues. Another related effort is educating politicians, political parties, and election officials to raise their awareness of potential foreign influence operations. In Sweden, for instance, the government prepared an elections handbook and offered hands-on training to government and election officials in order to help increase preparedness and resilience against disinformation campaigns. However, such efforts risk being damaged when certain European politicians or parties themselves undermine election security by accepting foreign donations, spreading fake news, or using social media bots. Similarly, in the United States, President Donald Trump’s own tendency to resort to disinformation is harmful to efforts to ensure election security.

Foster societal resilience against disinformation

Countries including Finland and Sweden have devoted significant attention to educating their citizens (especially young voters) about the dangers of disinformation in order to enhance societal resilience. Some European governments have also encouraged media organizations to reinforce journalistic quality standards and practices to protect against disinformation campaigns. Notable examples of fact-checking initiatives include CrossCheck in France and Correctiv in Germany. The EU has promoted the creation of a European hub of independent fact checkers to collaborate. Likewise, the United States could do more to promote civic literacy through, for instance, investments in secondary-education curricula or public broadcasting outlets or public information campaigns. However, some European efforts, such as the French experience with trying to impose laws to regulate media reporting, risk descending the slippery slope into censorship. Moreover, some of these efforts would likely not be applicable in an American context, where the First Amendment is sacrosanct and distrust in the federal government is significantly higher than in most Western European countries.

It now behooves the United States, having experienced Russian interference campaign in its 2016 presidential elections, to pay close attention to the European experience to ensure that its upcoming elections are free and fair.

In short, Europe has not found any silver bullet for addressing election interference, which remains a serious challenge on the continent. It now behooves the United States, having experienced Russian interference campaign in its 2016 presidential elections, to pay close attention to the European experience to ensure that its upcoming elections are free and fair. The fact that this year’s presidential election will take place amid a global pandemic and an even more complicated information landscape makes this task a particularly challenging one for U.S. election officials. Europe will certainly be paying close attention to see how well they fare.

Erik Brattberg is the Director of the Europe Program and a Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, DC. He is the co-author of the report “Russian Election Interference: Europe’s Counter to Fake News and Cyber Attacks,” published by the Carnegie Endowment in May 2018. @ErikBrattberg

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