Democratic norms, processes and institutions are under attack in many parts of the world, including in established democracies. As a result, public trust and faith in democracy itself is being eroded. In many developing countries, inadequate electoral laws, procedures and institutions place democratic transitions at risk, while in others a lack of public trust in the electoral process and outcome can be a precursor to violence and serious human rights violations. In developed countries, the rising power of populist leaders, foreign interference in elections, illegal financing of political parties, misinformation and ‘fake news’ (including deep-fake videos), data theft and misuse (e.g. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica), and inadequate regulation covering the role of the Internet and social media in electioneering and in politics; have led many to talk of an attack on, or a crisis of, liberal democracy. All of these issues are, at heart, human rights concerns, and the UN human rights system must therefore take the lead in addressing them in line with universal norms and standards.
Free and fair elections
Elections are the cornerstone of democracy. Where electoral laws are sound, and where electoral commissions, processes and mechanisms are strong, a successful election can set a country on a course to long-term democracy, stability and the improved enjoyment of human rights. But where national election infrastructure is weak or open to abuse, mistrust, grievance and anger can quickly grow, especially amongst those in society who feel excluded from political office, and can quickly spiral into situations marked by gross and systematic human rights violations.
Especially in the current era of ‘prevention,’ it is imperative that the Human Rights Council finds ways to work with States, especially developing countries, to strengthen national election infrastructure and democratic resilience. Incredibly, for the moment, no other part of the UN is doing so (other relevant departments, such as DPA, tend to react to election crises and/or coordinate, in a few cases, observation missions).
Misinformation, fake news and hate speech
Attacks on the integrity of democratic elections are not only a problem in the Global South. In established democracies like the UK and the US, the interplay of populism and technology (see below), coming against a backdrop of outdated election laws and mechanisms, has led to a rise in misinformation, ‘fake news’ and hate speech, especially online. This misinformation and hate speech is often microtargeted (using/abusing the personal data of individual rights-holders) to play on individual voters’ political beliefs or fears. There have been numerous parliamentary, congressional and security service reports in recent years that attest to the scale of this problem, and to the inadequacy of existing regulatory and non-regulatory (e.g. factcheck sites, ‘take down’ agreements) responses. Following his December 2019 mission to Ethiopia, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye reported that online hate speech and fake news is the key concern of rights-holders in the country, especially in the context of its democratic transition and upcoming elections.
Building on its existing engagement with governments and social media companies (including Facebook) in the context of UN policies to combat religious intolerance and hate speech, URG will work with interested States, companies, UN experts (e.g. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression), and NGOs to consider, develop and share workable policy solutions to this growing – and so far unaddressed – threat to liberal democracy, and to democratic transitions. It will seek to do so in a manner that recognises the seriousness of the challenge posed by online hate speech and fake news, yet also defends freedom of expression and opinion.
New technologies and democracy
Linked somewhat with the above project, it is clear that technology can either be a force for good or a force for ill in a democracy, including in the context of elections. On the negative side, fake news (especially via online political ads) is increasingly used to confuse or manipulate voters; stolen personal data (e.g. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica) can be used to launch micro-targeted campaigns that stoke grievance and incite hatred and violence; and social media can provide a platform or ‘entryway’ for foreign interference in democratic polls. On the positive side, the use of some technologies (e.g. voting software linked to iPads and real-time results updates) can help improve the transparency of, and trust in, electoral processes; and can help ‘open up’ democratic institutions and decisions – making them more accessible and responsive to the People.
URG, via the Human Rights Council and other platforms, will seek to bring democratic States together, to share information and evolving good practice in responding to the threats some applications of technology pose to the integrity of elections and of democracy. The project will also look to understand how some countries, including their electoral commissions, are mobilising technology to increase trust in elections, and to bring democracy closer to the People.