NDI continues to expand its efforts at the intersection of tech and democracy in response to the growing, global challenges of disinformation and cyberattacks against political parties and democracy organizations. Over the coming months, NDI will be rolling out a number of new initiatives to promote the integrity of information in politics and to support the civic tech community.
This will include a launch of a coalition of organizations working around the world to more aggressively advocate for democracy as a core design principle for tech and social media platforms. It also includes new types of partnerships with tech companies who want to support efforts to mitigate the negative impacts of the internet on democracy. Facebook and Twitter are both early contributors to these efforts, which build on long-standing relationships with the tech community. NDI has convened a number of high-level discussions with the tech industry on a range of issues in Silicon Valley over the past five years and has maintained a continuous staff presence in the Bay Area since 2013.
“Tech and social media firms have a responsibility to ensure that their platforms do not spread hate and disinformation but instead support democracy,” said NDI’s President Derek Mitchell. “NDI has a responsibility to help hold their feet to the fire.” Mitchell further noted that, as former U.S. Ambassador to Burma, he has seen first-hand how social media platforms can be misused to incite hatred and fuel ethnic conflict, as well as the need for platforms to be much more proactive in addressing these issues, particularly in emerging democracies or conflict-vulnerable countries. NDI is involved in active partnerships and discussions with many of the major tech and social media firms, including Facebook, Google, Twitter and Microsoft, to ensure that online platforms are being designed and governed to help reinforce democratic discourse and values. “The very mixed record of tech firms on these issues is a reason for more, rather than less, engagement between the democracy and tech communities in order to overcome these challenges,” Mitchell added.
Tech and social media firms have a responsibility to ensure that their platforms do not spread hate and disinformation but instead support democracy. NDI has a responsibility to help hold their feet to the fire.
Derek Mitchell, NDI President
There are several components to this increased focus on tech and democracy, including strengthening cybersecurity, exposing and countering disinformation, and supporting civic tech groups who are working to use technology to promote civic engagement and inclusion. In May 2018, NDI and its sister organization, the International Republican Institute (IRI), joined the Defending Digital Democracy Project (D3P) at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center to publicly launch an international edition of the Cybersecurity Campaign Playbook in Brussels. Since the launch, NDI has introduced cybersecurity preparedness concepts to political parties in Southern Africa, and conducted in-depth trainings with partners in Ukraine—a country which has faced extremely sophisticated cyberattacks from Russia. NDI has also been working with industry leaders in the cybersecurity space, including Microsoft, Google and others, to provide democracy organizations with training resources, security keys, and access to advanced security features and assessment tools. There are plans to further scale these efforts to provide cybersecurity resources to political parties and democracy activists.
NDI has also been working to ensure that citizen (domestic) election monitoring organizations have the methods and tools they need to address the growing issue of disinformation operations in elections. “Disinformation in elections is an issue that a growing number of election management bodies and election monitoring organizations are grappling with,” noted Pat Merloe, NDI Senior Associate and Director of Electoral Processes. “NDI is supporting election monitoring organizations in developing and sharing approaches and tools to monitor and analyze the impact of disinformation operations on electoral integrity.” As one element of this effort, NDI brings together nonpartisan citizen election monitoring organizations, technology experts, civic tech groups, tech firms, and election management bodies to share information and lessons learned for combating disinformation. NDI has hosted a number of conferences and workshops to share lessons from activists in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil, which are vital conversations given the recent and upcoming elections in these countries.
NDI is supporting election monitoring organizations in developing and sharing approaches and tools to monitor and analyze the impact of disinformation operations on electoral integrity.
Pat Merloe, NDI Senior Associate and Director of Electoral Processes
“Democracy needs accurate information to thrive,” noted Chris Doten, NDI’s Chief Innovation Officer. “If you are an autocrat who wants to undermine democracy, you have at least three options. If you think of information flow as water in a pipe, there are multiple ways to prevent that resource from reaching its intended recipients. You can restrict what’s going into the pipe, which is censorship; you can go after the recipient at the other end of the pipe, by hacking and surveilling their data; or you can pollute the contents of the pipe to make it toxic to drink, and that’s the goal of many disinformation operations.”
NDI Director of Governance Programs Scott Hubli added, “Authoritarian regimes have used all three approaches in very targeted ways against specific demographic groups to advance their interests. For example, specific disinformation narratives are often used to marginalize women or other politically underrepresented groups. They have also tried promoting a false moral equivalency between efforts to protect the integrity of elections and efforts to subvert them, calling both ‘election meddling.’ This is like saying a doctor who administers a cure and one who administers poison are the same, because they both meddled with a patient.”
If you think of information flow as water in a pipe … you can restrict what’s going into the pipe, which is censorship; you can go after the recipient at the other end of the pipe, by hacking and surveilling their data; or you can pollute the contents of the pipe to make it toxic to drink, and that’s the goal of many disinformation operations.
Chris Doten, NDI Chief Innovation Officer
NDI has been a leader in the fight against online violence against women in politics and, as a result, has been particularly interested in how disinformation, and other forms of online violence against women in politics, works to suppress women’s political engagement. “State-enabled online disinformation campaigns seek to control the space for, and the nature of, political discourse,” noted Caroline Hubbard, NDI Senior Advisor for Gender, Women and Democracy. “Given their access to resources and their reach, governments have the potential to manipulate entrenched gender norms to cause women to withdraw from politics. They can also sway popular support away from visible politically-active women, and influence how voters view particular parties, issues, policies and behaviors.” NDI has contributed to the recent efforts of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Dubravka Šimonović, to address these issues, including the Report of the Special Rapporteur on online violence against women. For further information and a link to NDI’s submission to the Special Rapporteur, see NDI’s #NotTheCost campaign website.
Although the recent focus on tech and democracy has been largely about mitigating negative impacts, NDI is also supporting proactive efforts on democratic innovation and civic tech. NDI has been honored to support the work of Code for All, a global network of civic-tech organizations that empower citizens to meaningfully engage in the public sphere and have a positive impact on their communities. Code for All will host its Global Summit: Heroes of Tech in Bucharest, Romania from October 8-11, 2018. Code for All demonstrates that many of the solutions to today’s tech and democracy challenges will come not solely from the tech industry or the democracy community, but from grassroots activists around the world. As one example, CoFacts is a community-supported fact-checking effort, supported by the Code for All chapter in Taiwan, g0v.tw. The effort is designed to counter disinformation on a messaging platform popular in Asia, LINE. With support from the tech industry, NDI is working with g0v.tw to scale and adapt this tool for other messaging platforms, such as Facebook Messenger and, potentially, WhatsApp.
“Partnerships with tech firms are not without risks,” noted Hubli. “As we move forward, we need to ensure that we show results and don’t simply provide a public relations opportunity for the tech companies.” In this regard, NDI is working to monitor the impact of these initiatives, as well as implement policies to prevent real or perceived conflicts of interest that may arise as part of these partnerships. For example, no tech company funding will be used to support NDI’s international election monitoring or its partnerships with citizen election observation efforts, since election observation statements which evaluate the impact of disinformation may assess the role of tech platforms themselves. Moreover, NDI has established an advisory board of respected democracy advocates and tech experts to provide strategic guidance on priorities for tech-industry funding and to advise on additional policies to avoid conflicts of interest.