Making Politics Ethical Again: The Issue of Foreign Election Interference

November 2, 2018

The 2016 US presidential election was a political nightmare that started in comedy and ended in tragedy, leaving an ongoing investigation into Russian election meddling in its wake. With the midterm elections fast approaching and accusations against the Trump administration piling high, the matter of protecting free elections from foreign interference surfaces once more.

Over the past months, the federal investigation into Russian election interference has been a consistent headline in the news. Social media fraud, Russian hacking and any possible connections to the Trump presidential campaign have all been the focus. Attention has also been paid to the possibility that the Russian government hacked the personal emails of Hilary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, in order to create a smear campaign to discredit her presidential credibility. The Special Counsel appointed to the case, Robert Mueller III, has charged dozens of people in relation to the investigation and many have been arrested and convicted, including the Chairman of the Trump campaign, Paul Manafort, and Donald Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, who officially surrendered after an F.B.I raid of his home and office.

One may think that ‘digging for dirt’ on political opponents is a tact confined to fiction alone, but if these convictions are anything to go by, election interference presents as a very real, unseen threat. And in our ever-developing technological golden age, protecting democratic autonomy from foreign political tampering is going to get a lot harder.

They ‘are going to spy on us. They do spy on us. They’re going to interfere in our election. We also do the same. (…) We all do it.’

In July 2018 Kentucky senator, Rand Paul, said in a comment on the Russian interference that they ‘are going to spy on us. They do spy on us. They’re going to interfere in our election. We also do the same. (…) We all do it.’ It is unsettling to here such an inconvenient truth, but he is correct. We only need to think back to the Cold War and the “behind the scenes” involvement of both the US and the Soviet Union in foreign states. Somewhat more recently, we have seen in 1996 Bill Clinton’s government body boosting support for Boris Yeltsin to have a second term in a bid to convert Russia to capitalism. Comparable to the current US government, Clinton lobbied the international lobby fund to give a 10-billion-dollar loan, some of which was distributed to ‘woo-voters’ in a bid to increase the likelihood of Yeltsin winning. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it worked; he won by a margin of more than 13%.

Yet this is not the only case of such occurrences. The thought that election interference has been occurring even before the ease of access to information which came with the digital age is daunting, driving the argument that there is no way we can stop these underhand political tactics. The only things that have changed in the 20 years between the two political scandals outlined above are the tools, not the intent.

Illegal as the actions around the 2016 elections were, they are very much an apt snapshot of how privacy is now the property of the hacker. In a way, this makes potential political leaders sitting ducks. Some may view this as a good development – a way to know all the illicit secrets of the person who may potentially lead the nation – but it also disrupts the process of democratic autonomy. If foreign governments are tampering with elections, favouring the leaders which support their own agendas and attempting to shift public opinion into said leaders’ favour, it is a manipulative form of demagoguery which is hard to counter.

In accordance with Article 2 of the United Nations charter, “The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members”. On the basis of sovereignty, each state declares the right to political freedom and self-determination without external influence. It is the key component of national autonomy and a critical factor in international relations.

It seems the ability to beat the hackers and internet trolls at their own game, undermining their online dominance, is the best tactic in combatting the attack on democratic autonomy.

While it seems difficult to combat internal and external interference, Senior Vice President for Europe, Eurasia, and the Arctic and Director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Heather A. Conley, discusses how it is possible to avoid political espionage. She details the French election, which she says was also under attack of Russian interference when an anti-Macron campaign, consisting of a mixture of real and fake emails, was released and failed. According to Conley, France’s ability to ‘anticipate’ the possibility of foreign interference allowed the French government to prepare their country before the election. Cyber security was increased, social media sites were notified to be on the look out for ‘fake news accounts’ and most importantly the public were made aware of the potential threat. It seems the ability to beat the hackers and internet trolls at their own game, undermining their online dominance, is the best tactic in combatting the attack on democratic autonomy.

The occurrence of electoral tampering is harmful for political discourse and in some ways, it has had significant knock on effects on the state of national and international politics. In the face of recurring interferences across the world, the question emerges: is domestic autonomy all but lost? How can nation-states protect the freedom and domestic integrity of their elections? And can – though it may sound contradictory – international systems serve to protect sovereignty? While the US-Russia scandal shines a bleak light on modern day politics, the only hope we currently have to salvage national autonomy is to learn from the mistakes of the past and implement measures to prevent election interference in the future.

– Darrius Kudiabor Thompson

Image from flickr.com