Curbing Digital Election Interference in the Age of Disinformation: Embellishing the Robustness and Independence of Electoral Systems in Modern Liberal Democracies

André Oliver Daab & Petros Katakis Anastasakos

Student thesis: Master thesis


Recent incidents of alleged election interference and large-scale disinformation campaigns in the West (i.e. 2016 US presidential elections, Cambridge Analytica scandal) have caused heightened awareness and interest in the topic of electoral
interference (EI) and social media manipulation (SMM). Due to the very current and ongoing nature of EI in the digital age, and more so the age of disinformation, research and reporting focuses predominantly on producing nouvelle and timely content often with the consequence of overlapping and redundant coverage. Very few of these investigations are academic, and many of the academic studies existing only aim at contributing new data. There is a severely limited effort of using the vast existing data to draw fundamental analyses, building the basis for a better understanding of election interference. This is the research gap addressed in this project. This thesis asks: employing secondary data analysis, can a concrete set of policy recommendations be produced to set a benchmark for modern liberal democracies (MLDs) to counter election interference and prevent uncoordinated national efforts? The thesis builds a holistic and comprehensive literature review setting an interdisciplinary foundation synthesising vocabulary, analysis, and intellectual paradigms around election interference, social media manipulation, and disinformation. The literature introduces applicable concepts relating to theories of electoral ethics, privacy, and data management and protection to elucidate the challenges and process that substantiate policy design and research in an attempt to further the analysis of this report. Using a varied qualitative method approach this thesis combines multiple qualitative methods in a Nested Analysis (NA), synthesising the strengths of two methods with one broad and one narrow focus of data. Binding the existing literature, we operationalise secondary data analysis, a method founded on the belief that necessary data to answer new research questions can be found in already existing data. The hypothesis that existing data in literature on election interference holds the necessary answers to build a set of applicable policy recommendation is tested throughout five chapters exploring 1) intent recognition behind election interference, 2) electoral infrastructures, 3) online advertising by foreign governments and nationals, 4) foreign media organisations, and 5) international norm setting. Following a quality-controlled structure supported by the NA, the chapters review timely reporting and popular academic work around the topics at hand to build recommendations that are validated against three expert publication, namely Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center Report on securing American elections in 2020, and two NATO reports exploring government and industry responses respectively. Promoting pluralist public dialogue and mitigating polarisation by fostering literacy brings a unique and dynamic approach to this study aiming to contribute a valuable element in election interference studies, by not only being easily replicable but expandable as a source of secondary data for related studies.

EducationsMSc in International Business and Politics, (Graduate Programme) Final Thesis
Publication date2020
Number of pages164
SupervisorsJens Olav Dahlgaard