In recent decades, it has become increasingly common for countries to involve themselves in foreign elections. Often, this involvement aims to enhance democracy without favoring a particular candidate or party. Before elections, foreign governments and NGOs assist with electoral reforms, and during elections they monitor activities to detect and deter irregularities. In some cases, however, countries seek to tip the scales; they use rhetoric and/or resources to give specific parties or candidates an electoral advantage. Certain countries use influence campaigns targeting the domestic political environments in Western countries as a tool to reach their own foreign policy goals.

Foreign Interference/Influence (FI) is defined as: “Malign actions taken by foreign governments or foreign actors designed to sow discord, manipulate public discourse, discredit the electoral system, bias the development of policy, or disrupt markets for the purpose of undermining the interests of a  given country.

A particular form of FI, Information Activities (IA) is defined as: “Activities undertaken to shape public opinion or undermine trust in the authenticity of information. Use of new and traditional media to amplify divides and foment unrest, sometimes coordinated with illicit cyber activities. Foreign state actors engaged in “foreign influence” and “foreign interference” often target public institutions, private sector entities as well as individuals. They seek to influence a given country’s policy and elections, disrupt markets, seed conflict, and sow societal discord to undermine democracy. Moreover, malign foreign influence efforts may come not only from state actors, but from individuals as well as organizations who are motivated by criminal intent and/or ideological objectives.

Foreign Influence Toolkit

False Information Operations: deliberately using false narrative through traditional media and social media outlets to manipulate and mislead the population and the weaponization of information to undermine organizations, democratic processes, or to polarize divisions.

Deep Fake Technology (DFT): the expansion and evolution of Artificial Intelligence (AI) that makes it literally possible to “put word into someone’s mouth” or alter images and/or video with the ongoing argument being not necessarily what was said or seen but whether the party seen to make the comment or appear at a location was actually real.

Cyberwarfare: exploiting attacks on the critical infrastructure and digital infrastructure to either shutdown or support other forms of attack or other parts of a subversive operation. Whilst existing technology lends itself to attacking electronic and digital election systems, this is not the limit of its capabilities in this area. Another example might be intentionally launching a distributed denial of service attack with a botnet against a news media organization expected to adversely report on other malign operations carried out by the foreign influencer.

Financial Influence: transferring money into another country intending to use it to obtain political leverage and fund other operations such as corruption schemes intended to recruit proxies to support media campaigns, from within in the same way as cold war espionage operations.

Backing Extreme Political Groups: providing financial and logistical support for extreme political and advocacy groups designed to promote a more friendly agenda towards the foreign government supplying the support or to support extremist and divisive views inside the country. In many cases, these groups may not even know the true source of donations or other support as they are skillfully engineered into a belief that makes their acceptance more palatable.

Countering hostile foreign electoral interference

  1. Electoral NGO monitors to report on such incidents – a measure well known in post/semi-authoritarian regimes where civil society checks on the state structures, outside of the usual OSCE missions.
  2. Enhanced counter-intelligence monitoring activities.
  3. Assuring clear public order in the region by enough law-enforcement entities on the ground.
  4. Government authorities have detailed knowledge of local extremist groups and diasporas that are vulnerable to foreign influence and exploitation.
  5. If necessary, postponing the elections/referendum until the source of intimidation is terminated.
  6. Support of the international community for pushing back on the source of intimidation.
  7. Government authorities have a clear and detailed understanding of the local disinformation community so any relevant changes in their behaviour can be quickly understood or investigated for signs of hostile foreign interference (including through proxies).
  8. National authorities have the skill, capacity, political will and competence to perform rapid digital forensics investigation to identify the origins and nature of major disinformation operations.
  9. A trustworthy partnership between the government authorities and NGO specialists who will investigate the case on their own and present their findings to the national media in real time.
  10. Using external audits and creating a platform where majority of the relevant non-governmental cyber experts can potentially publicly testify on the alleged hack, so that the perception of a compromised election can be rapidly mitigated by the expert community.
  11. Extensive audit of the complete voting process needs to be performed. Moreover, additional testing of situations where the perpetrator would play a role in the specific part of the process (physical or online sabotage during the delivery of votes, vote count, delivery of results to the central authorities, and so on).
  12. Same as with other disinformation operations – government authorities need to have the skill, capacity, political will and competence to perform rapid digital forensics investigations and related appropriate responses. Informal groups of trusted experts can play a vital role in real-time analysis of the situation and the created media perception.
  13. Government authorities can provide candidates and their teams with training and consultations on cyber security.
  14. Candidates can, for example, use decoy email addresses to undermine trust in “leaks”. It would be highly controversial, but possible.
  15. Teams of private cyber experts can be organized during the electoral period to be ready and available for external investigations looking into a specific case and providing authoritative explanations to the media.
  16. If the electoral process is declared a part of the national critical infrastructure, government authorities might consider using appropriate offensive cyber tools against the perpetrators and platforms publishing the stolen material.
  17. Government authorities need to have rapid investigatory and response capabilities , which would be put on alert during the electoral period. The content, nature and origins of the narratives can be tracked and exposed publicly, to make the facts transparent. No efforts for potential censorship should be made since this would not be right or effective.
  18. Informal networks of private investigators cannot be organized by the government, but can be supported in their activities in order to enhance resilience.
  19. Forecasts of expected trends and scenarios can be published prior to the electoral period to raise the awareness and readiness of the society.
  20. All political parties can declare and pledge that they will not use any kind of automatized online bots. Such a code of conduct can be codified on the parliamentary level by a joint declaration, while electoral regulatory bodies can sanction breaches of the rule, if sanctions are put in the electoral legislation
  21. The government needs to appoint a clear executive and coordination authority to one central entity to be responsible for protection of the elections. Without a clear political, legal and bureaucratic mandate, very little can be done in real time in the maze of public bodies.
  22. Government authorities need to have a prepared standardized communication system on how candidates and their teams can share information on these cases with them. A clear and transparent government authority must be designed and announced so that the process is seen as legitimate and serious. The government authority needs to have a mandate to organize other public bodies in real time, for example it needs to have a pre-arranged list of working-level liaisons in key agencies and public entities. For example, a centralized government website can be provided.
  23. General guidelines can be created by government authorities for the candidates on which suspicious activities or attempts they should follow and potentially start alerting the authorities.
  24. The government authority responsible for protection of the elections should conduct an in-depth analysis of legal tools available for protecting the electoral process, which would make the authorities realize what are the weak or blind spots of the current legislation. For example, how practically can foreign funding be delivered to local political entities through proxies and what are the legal ways to challenge that practice.
  25. Exact and enforce legislation prohibiting foreign financing of political activities and campaigns.
  26. Legislation forcing the candidates to release their tax returns dating back a number of years to make sure they are not vulnerable to blackmail.
  27. Legal requirement for 100 % transparent financing in real time (transparent bank account), with major penalties if not obeyed. Effective legal and executive tools for scrutinizing how candidates fulfill legislative requirements.
  28. NGO & journalistic watchdogs scrutinize the candidates, their teams, their contacts and financing. The politicians need to be asked and investigated on how they paid for their trips.
  29. Precise checks and balances inside the government system
  30. Rigorous rules for candidates and their team prohibiting them from meeting or receiving information from foreign agencies, or binding them to declare it to the national counter-intelligence agency if such contact occurs
  31. Precise and legal surveillance conducted by the national counter-intelligence agency to protect the candidates from any meddling by foreign agencies.
  32. Since most of it would be legal, only the process of the visit needs to be publicly scrutinized by the entities such as national parliaments to which the politicians belong. For example, a public denunciation of a trip by a committee could occur.

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