Elections, campaigns and voting in the platform economy

This coming spring in Finland is going to entail lively political discussions. The campaigns for the Parliamentary Elections (April 2019) are already in full swing. And after having dealt with domestic issues, the European Elections will follow (May 2019). Political debates are taking place in the media as well as workplaces, schools and other arenas where people meet. This includes also digital meeting places, and platforms of different type are growingly important in delivering political messages with wide outreach.

In this signal post, we will discuss three aspects of how the platform economy is facilitating political discourse. We will identify both positive and negative impacts on democracy, especially at the time of elections. The three topics are:

  • targeted political campaigns
  • fake news in politics
  • electronic and online voting.

Targeted political campaigns

Digitalisation and the platform economy are changing the way that political campaigns are carried out nowadays. Voting advice applications act as platforms for candidates and parties to declare their agendas and for voters to find a match from their point of view. Another way to benefit from the wide outreach enabled by platforms is for electoral candidates to be active on social media.

While the platform economy promotes broad societal discussions and better informed decision-making, new types of problems also arise. Organized mass campaigns are masked as non-political one-to-one chitchat. Data about voters is being collected, and platform giants together with consultancies like Cambridge Analytica have been known to take targeted political campaigns and personalized adverts to a whole new level. There is little transparency, and the ways used to influence voting decisions are questionable.

It is very appropriate that platform-based solutions have been developed to tackle these issues. In Finland, the Vaalivahti initiative has been launched to help citizens identify when political adverts are displayed on Facebook. A simple browser extension, based on the software developed by Who Targets Me, needs to be installed, and an analysis of political ads and why you were being targeted is provided. The platform maintains an up-to-date database of targeted political campaigns, which is open also for researchers and journalists to examine.

Fake news in politics

The 2016 US presidential election, and the alleged fake news attacks surrounding it, was a big wake-up call around the world. Studies and investigations have been conducted with the aim to reveal what really happened, how much fake news and misinformation was being released and by whom, what the real influence on voters was and whether the very election result was affected. One example is the recent study that suggests that the exposure of the average American to pro-Trump fake news was higher than that of pro-Clinton, but the authors emphasize that rash conclusions cannot be made based on this knowledge.

Fake news by foreign or domestic, political or economic actors has the potential to disrupt democracy, especially close to elections. The forms adopted range from fake news promoting to bashing one candidate, but they may also intend to inhibit political speech and suppress voting altogether. Social media and other platforms are being used as the tools and means to distribute fake news, and regulatory governance and rule setting may be needed to address these issues.

An example of suggestions to fix problems with regulatory measures is to require transparency of political advertising on digital media by informative real-time ad disclosure. Such data includes the sponsor, money spent, targeting parameters, etc. This real-time information provided along with the ad should also be compiled and stored for later review.

Electronic and online voting

Platforms can also facilitate the casting and counting of votes by using electronic means. For example, an electronic voting platform could build on voting machines at polling stations. Or, take a few more steps forward, an online voting platform could allow those entitled to vote exercise their right from anywhere, using any device as long as they can connect to the internet.

In Finland, the topic of electronic voting has been discussed from the early 2000s on and several studies and pilots have been conducted by the Ministry of Justice. Electronic voting at polling stations was trialled in three municipalities in the 2008 municipal elections, but problems were encountered in registering votes. Work to develop electronic voting was thus discontinued around 2010, but discussions were reopened in 2016. A working group was then appointed, and a feasibility study on the introduction of online voting in Finland was published in 2017. The conclusion was that even though viable electronic voting systems already existed, they did not meet the requirements and risks outweighed benefits. Core problems included, for example, the reliability of the system and guaranteeing verification and election secrecy at the same time.

New technologies, such as blockchain, may however help solve the issues mentioned above. Blockchain could be used to fight electoral fraud and vote buying while ensuring integrity and inclusiveness. Service development with blockchain-based voting platforms is vibrant, and pilots are showing great promise.

Selected articles and websites

Greenspon Edward and Owen Taylor (2018). Democracy Divided: Countering Disinformation and Hate in the Digital Public Sphere
Hunt Allcott and Gentzkow Matthew (2017). Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 31 (2): 211-36
Ministry of Justice. 2017. Online voting in Finland, A feasibility study
Ministry of Justice. Electronic voting in Finland
Palermo Frank, Forbes. Is Blockchain The Answer To Election Tampering?
Palmisano Tonino, The Cryptonomist: Voting in the days of Blockchain technology
Vaalivahti
Who Targets Me
Wikipedia. Voting advice application

Heidi Auvinen

Senior Scientist VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
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