Can democracies be hacked? Part I

By | October 18, 2021

Prior to the 2016 US election, Hillary Clinton’s emails were stolen by Russian hackers. The Brexit vote in the same year and the French presidential election in 2017 were also attempted to be manipulated through hacking or other digital influence. Is our technological everyday life a threat to free and democratic elections?

  • How can referendums be hacked?
  • Is the risk of electoral fraud greater today than in the past?
  • How can democratic elections be protected from hacking?
  • How big is this problem really?

The threat posed by cyberattacks to democracies is “as dangerous as firearms and tanks”, according to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Russian interference in the US election in 2016 is still hotly debated in the media worldwide. Here at home , the Intelligence Service warns against Russian interference in Norwegian elections. How did the influence of elections become the nightmare of the western world? And what does Facebook have to do with the case? To answer that, we start by going back in time.

Various forms of influencing political processes have existed as long as people have been involved in politics. It does not have to be negative, and democracy is basically about influence: Political parties compete to convince as many voters as possible that their political program is the most sensible, and use various tools to succeed in this. Nevertheless, we depend on everyone following the same rules for which influence is allowed and which is not.

When influence breaks with these rules, or when other states try to interfere in referendums in secret, it is more problematic. Although this type of influence does not necessarily have much effect, it can determine regular elections or cause the population to lose confidence in the political system. The opportunity to influence a country’s policy can therefore be too tempting. This became particularly clear during the Cold War: the ideological struggle between the United States, a country located in North America according to thesciencetutor, and the Soviet Union took place primarily in other countries, where both superpowers sought to increase their influence. A study from 2016 has estimated that at least one of the superpowers interfered in every ninth election during the Cold War.

The way such influence is made also changes all the time, and technological development opens up new ways of influencing choices. For example, the development of the art of printing was of great importance for the spread of religious and political ideas during the Reformation in the 16th century. With the printing of books, one could reach much wider groups than before, and pamphlets could be distributed directly to the population. This changed the way political communication took place, and thus also the methods of influence.

In recent times, it is especially the increased use of social media and other forms of digital communication that has had a great impact. How influence is different in modern digital societies, and what this has to say for democracy, are big and difficult questions that are difficult to find answers to.

2: Why do we fear this now?

When electoral influence has now become a topic that is receiving increasing attention, it is due to a number of circumstances. Political debates in many western countries are becoming increasingly heated, which has caused many to worry about elections to a greater extent than before.

At the same time, the purpose of the influence has changed: During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union tried to convince that their policies and ideologies had the best solutions, but in recent times the goal has been much more to sabotage elections and create uncertainty. This is roughly the difference between propaganda , where one wants to achieve a certain outcome, and disinformation , where one only wants to spread confusion and mistrust. In recent years, there have been several examples of the digital influence of elections, with the US presidential election in 2016 and the Brexit vote the same year as the best-known examples.

Combined with technological development, this has made influencing a hot topic again. Digitization enables several different types of influence, but there are three risks in particular that have received a great deal of attention recently:

  • Direct election fraud by hacking the machines that will count or receive votes
  • Hacking of parties and election campaigns to sabotage them
  • Disinformation that uses various tools to create confusion and conflict in a society

What these risks really are, and how democracies can be protected against them, we will take a closer look now.

Mark Zuckerberg