Knowing and showing: how intelligence and transparency can combat electoral interference

By on 04/02/2024 | Updated on 12/02/2024
Photo: Shutterstock

For a decade, hostile powers overseas have been interfering in elections and stoking public anger in Europe and North America – and the domestic beneficiaries of these operations often stymie attempts to combat them. Matt Ross explores how civil servants and elected leaders can overcome this resistance and fight back

The democratic world is under attack: hostile nations are – as detailed in the first three parts of our five-part investigation – actively stirring strife and sowing disinformation, weakening governments and damaging societies. In this fourth report, we’ll consider how elected leaders and civil servants can use monitoring, intelligence and transparency to rebuild mutual trust, social coherence and public civility in the national conversation (our fifth and final report will explore the roles of social media regulation, political awareness and public education).

Public servants trying to combat foreign interference may find themselves facing domestic opposition. After all, every foreign intervention amplifies an angry domestic voice; every hack and leak operation undermining an incumbent government empowers its political opponents. And while these activities cause serious, long-term damage to people’s faith in the body politic and the national institutions, they also create short-term benefits for some campaigners and politicians – typically the populist forces currently disrupting polities everywhere.

In many countries, says Russia expert Edward Lucas, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, “we have seen a politicised response” to Russia’s electoral interventions – “and the politicised response was not to respond”. This was perhaps unsurprising: in the years after 2016, some those in power in the UK and USA owed their positions in part to Russia’s activities – a fact that they had little incentive to publicise. 

Edward Lucas. Credit John Russell

What’s more, investigations into Russia’s activities fell foul of the very knee-jerk partisanship that its interventions sought to foster. “So in the United States, any discussion of Russian interference was tied up with all the controversy over Donald Trump: the Democrats believed every word of criticism, and the Republicans wouldn’t believe any of it – and that made life very difficult for the FBI and other people trying to deal with genuine foreign political interference,” says Lucas. In the UK, meanwhile, “people who were in favour of Brexit refused to believe that Russia had anything to do with [the referendum result], and people who were against Brexit believe it was all cooked up by Russia.

“Neither of those are true, but there was Russian interference,” he adds. “We do need to worry about that, and take measures – both to try and investigate what happened and punish the culprits, and also to make sure that we harden our systems so that it doesn’t happen again.”

Paralysed by politics

The danger here is that attempts to harden those systems become a political football: in Canada, for example, the Conservative opposition – which is more hawkish on China than prime minister Justin Trudeau – consistently attacked the special rapporteur appointed by Trudeau to investigate allegations of Chinese interference, ultimately leading to his resignation. While the Conservatives’ scepticism may have been heartfelt, the result has been a slowdown in progress on identifying and combating Chinese interference. The government has since set up a public inquiry, which is currently hearing evidence and expects to publish an interim report in May.

Meanwhile, Canada is running out of “workable time left in this Parliament” before the next election, which must be held by October 2025, comments Michael Wernick, who led Canada’s civil service as Secretary to the Cabinet 2016-19. Speaking before the public inquiry was established, he argued that the government should act quickly: “They could be moving on foreign interference legislation now. All five political parties have a responsibility to work together to protect the institutional framework, to bolster and protect trust in the process, and not to weaponise it. I’m not totally sure that’s going to happen over the next year or two.”

Michael Wernick

The saddest tale of a well-meaning attempt to combat disinformation comes from the USA, where Joe Biden’s 2022 bid to establish a Disinformation Governance Board collapsed in the face of hysterical attacks by Trumpian populists. Nina Jancowicz, a security and disinformation expert appointed as the Board’s executive director, explains that it aimed to tackle the “lack of understanding of what disinformation was” within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). “I just wanted to help educate people, and then to connect them with colleagues across the department working on these issues,” she says – performing a coordinating role akin to that of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which aids disaster response.

Nina Jancowicz

However, right-wing commentators – led by then-Fox News presenter Tucker Carlson – attacked the Board as a bid to censor social media and target Biden’s political opponents. Jancowicz was depicted as “somebody in a roomful of screens, cackling maniacally, taking certain things off the internet and – this is what Tucker Carlson said – sending men with guns to the homes of people with whom I disagreed,” she recalls. “Now all researchers and organisations working to counter disinformation are being painted as if they’re part of this vast government censorship network, which just couldn’t be further from the truth.”

To Jancowicz’s regret, “the Biden administration decided to crumble to these false attacks” – dropping the idea before it had got off the ground. The DHS had erred in downplaying news of the Board’s creation, she says; instead, it should have “communicated more proactively and transparently from the very beginning about what the board was, what it could do, what it couldn’t do, and what it absolutely would not do”. In today’s political environment, she adds, creating a disinformation board to address this “hot button issue, at a department widely despised on both sides of the aisle, led by a young woman, was a fever dream for the right, and they just made up these crazy narratives”. In a sad irony, the disinformation board had fallen foul of disinformation.

Read more: Russia’s elections toolkit: dollars, disruption and disinformation

An interference whistleblower

Across the border, civil servants in Canada have had more success in creating an institution to tackle disinformation. Canada’s Critical Election Incident Public Protocol has a narrower mandate than the Disinformation Governance Board: it creates a panel to act as a “whistleblower on incidents of foreign interference that come to light during the election period,” explains Michael Wernick, who advised on its creation.

David Salvo

Bringing together his successor as Secretary to the Cabinet and other top officials, the panel examines “information coming in from the intelligence services, and makes a judgement call about whether [an attempt to interfere is] serious enough to go public with. It couldn’t be done by the incumbent government, by politicians, or it would be seen as an attempt to manipulate the election,” says Wernick. These are very difficult decisions, he adds: “You’d better get it right, because it may change the trajectory of the election and become a decisive moment. So the threshold for intervening has to be pretty high.”

David Salvo, a former US State Department security policy advisor now working as managing director of transatlantic campaign group the Alliance for Securing Democracy, is an admirer of the Canadian system. “We would never have been able to create such a system in the United States: the issue would become politicised,” he comments. “But I like that model, and I think it addresses a vulnerability that we haven’t fixed in the States.”

Be more intelligent

The Canadian approach is, of course, dependent on the intelligence agencies spotting examples of overseas interference. This itself requires that they focus time and resources on the problem; that each holds clear, coterminous responsibilities, leaving no gaps in coverage; and that information is shared and distributed as required. In the UK, for example, Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee has warned that the culture department and Electoral Commission are not “in the central position required to tackle a major hostile state threat to our democracy”. Domestic security service MI5 should hold the operational role, the committee’s 2019 report argued, while the Home Office’s Homeland Security Group oversees policy and the Cabinet Office manages a programme to “coordinate the Government’s work on protecting democratic discourse and processes from interference”.

The intelligence agencies also have a role to play in hardening voting systems. Following Russia’s 2016 attacks on US states’ election services, says Salvo, “there was an injection of federal resources that helped patch some cyber vulnerabilities”; those investments have been followed up by better partnership working between the federal and state administrations. In reality, though, electoral systems have always been fairly well protected from foreign actors; the major task here is to squash the misinformation and disinformation distributed to question their integrity.

Intelligence organisations may also be able to provide elected leaders with ways to deter future attacks, suggests Elisabeth Braw, a senior associate fellow at the European Leadership Network and a member of the UK’s National Preparedness Commission.

“We could retaliate asymmetrically, by releasing information that is accurate but uncomfortable to members of the elites,” she says. “It would be embarrassing for members of the Russian elites to have ordinary Russians knowing that they own properties in the UK, or shell companies that seem to have no operations.”

Read more: A subtle opponent: China’s influence operations

Sunlight is the best disinfectant

Indeed, publication can be a powerful tool. Several countries – including the UK – are working on equivalents of the USA’s 1938 Foreign Agents Registration Act, while Australia has had legislation in place since 2018. These laws require anyone paid to represent or promote the interests of another country to set out their activities. The challenge here, says Lucas, is that “the definition of who’s foreign can be quite slippery; and if you don’t want to give yourself away as a foreigner influencing the political system, you just find a rich British person to do it for you”.

Benjamin Fung

Such registries can miss relevant activities, says Benjamin Fung, professor of information studies and Canada research chair in data mining for cybersecurity at Montreal’s McGill University: “Many of these interference activities are in the grey area: it’s not very often that they’re directly paying someone to interfere in elections.” He wants Canada’s government to revive its own Foreign Influence Registry and Accountability Act – currently stalled in Parliament – but warns that it will be difficult to craft a law that targets bad actors without hitting innocent Canadians.

Wernick, who also backs legislation, highlights “concerns about suppressing the diaspora communities, and the impact on foreign accredited journalists”. Other nations – including Russia – have used similar rules “as a method of suppressing the opposition,” he adds. “We have to be very careful about the state regulating free expression and association.”

A more straightforward approach can be that of strengthening domestic transparency legislation, bringing into the open the identities of all those giving substantial funds to political parties or think tanks. Some think tanks, says Lucas, are little more than “disguised lobbying firms, taking a lot of money from the donor to promote a contentious point of view”. And in many countries, political donations are inadequately monitored: in October, former MI5 director general Lord Evans – in a speech marking the end of his tenure as chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life – warned that “clear vulnerabilities have not been addressed” in the UK’s rules governing political donations.

As the experiences of Canada and the USA show, anybody seeking to push back against the tide of fake news will hit domestic opposition from those who benefit from our growing discord and divisions. But Canada has found a depoliticised way to raise the alarm about future disinformation or hacking operations, and democratic countries have made big strides in repurposing their intelligence systems to address the threat. Action to improve transparency in how foreign money flows into political parties, think tanks and media organisations would further improve resilience.

Beyond that, there are two key battlegrounds in the struggle to tackle overseas interference: the social media platforms, and the awareness and skills of the public. In the fifth and final part of this report, we’ll explore how democratic nations can fight back on these crucial fronts.

This is the fourth part of our report into the attempts by government-backed actors – particularly in Russia and China – to influence election outcomes and national debates in the democratic world, with the use of tools including disinformation campaigns, election hacking and party donations.

You can read previous parts here:
On Russia’s goals: Organised chaos: how Russia weaponised the culture wars
On Russia’s tools: Russia’s elections toolkit: dollars, disruption and disinformation
On China’s operations: A subtle opponent: China’s influence operations

The final part of this report explores further solutions to election interference, including social media regulation and public education: Defeating disinformation: how to create a healthier national conversation

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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