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Between sexual objectification and death threats: Electoral officials all over the world face unprecedented levels of disinformation, aggression and harassment

Photo source: www.canva.com

Recent media reports[1] [2] highlighted the worrying level of online harassment against poll workers around the 2022 United States mid-term elections. Ongoing work by International IDEA confirms that this phenomenon is not limited to the US. Disinformation and various forms of aggression and harassment targeting electoral officials in the information environment is a global phenomenon and poses a serious threat to democracy.

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The amplitude and devastating impact of these practices were acknowledged by electoral officials in high visibility roles, from 21 countries from all regions, who participated in a two-day practitioner round table on Protecting electoral officials in the information environment organized by International IDEA.

Discussions confirmed preliminary research and cases documented by International IDEA indicating that electoral officials are targeted by disinformation and other forms of aggression in the information space, which is frequently gender-based. These attacks are part of wider strategies to undermine the credibility of the processes they manage and challenge the functional independence of the institutions they represent (electoral management bodies - EMBs). This may eventually weaken the pillars of trust in critical democratic structures, destabilize democracies and contribute to backsliding. In most cases, domestic political actors or even state leadership figures initiate or perpetuate these malign behaviours.  

A key conclusion of the round table discussion is that urgent action is needed to protect electoral officials. Critically, states and political stakeholders should commit to respecting the independence of EMBs and protecting elections in the information environment.

During the event, current and former chairs and members of EMBs shared lived experiences with disinformation, aggression and harassment in the information space. This enabled a deeper understanding of the phenomenon and its profoundly damaging impact on an individual and institutional level, with severe implications for the democratic landscape in their countries.  

In parallel, the majority of the approximately 300 electoral officials responding to a recent survey by International IDEA declared they were targeted by disinformation and/or online aggression while in their official positions. The majority of those responding Yes were women. Specific to women is an additional layer of disinformation that portrays them as incapable of fulfilling their duties due to their gender and is linked to societal stereotypes and misogyny.

The impact of these and other forms of digital aggression, such as humiliation, instigation to violence, devaluation of work, intimidation and threats, is multifaceted:

  • on a personal level, it ranges from reputational damage, curtailing civil rights, psychological trauma, and goes as far as physical violence against the officials and their inner circle, and even murder,

“Several electoral officials were killed during the last elections.”

“A colleague was told: <we know you, we know who your neighbors are, we know where your children go to school and we know who your husband is>. For security reasons, the family had to separate until the situation calmed down.”

“The driver is always checking the car to make sure a bomb was not placed underneath.”

  • on the professional level it discourages electoral officials from aspiring to or remaining in leadership positions within electoral structures and silences their voices, to then be replaced with persons serving specific political agendas,

"The level of emotional abuse and trauma that I and my family have endured has made me eventually resign."

“The abuse and harassment continue even now, long after I have left the position.”

  • on the institutional level it generates the loss of organizational knowledge and competence, as many choose to resign, which ultimately undermines the trust and credibility of the EMB.

“We have seen a high turnover among temporary electoral staff following exposure to such attacks.”

 

The participants also highlighted that although the intensity of the attacks fluctuates throughout the electoral cycle, it tends to increase when the EMBs are making decisions unfavourable to a certain political actor. According to our research, the period preceding elections is particularly sensitive. Together with election day, these are prime periods across the electoral cycle when ill-intended actors scale up their manipulation strategies, and disinformation, harassment and aggression against electoral officials usually peak.

Background

In December 2021, the International IDEA’s Electoral Processes Team initiated global research mapping the information environment around elections to identify the vulnerabilities and deficiencies in how electoral management bodies (EMBs) deal with the emerging challenges in this area. Preliminary findings revealed a series of worrying trends for electoral stakeholders as well as the different strategies for targeting EMBs, electoral processes and individuals affiliated with elections. Of particular concern were the increasingly frequent cases where electoral officials worldwide are targeted by disinformation and other forms of online aggression and harassment.

Further work zoomed in on these aspects with three research phases:

  1. A survey gathering responses from current or former electoral officials in high visibility roles on whether they were targeted by disinformation and/or online aggression.
  2. Interviews with current or former electoral officials in high visibility roles who confirmed being targeted by disinformation and/or online aggression.
  3. A roundtable discussion on Protecting electoral officials in the online environment.

The findings of the global research will be published in the upcoming weeks and will be used to guide interventions for protecting electoral officials in the information space and consolidate the resilience of the institutions they manage against such malign practices.

 
[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2022/11/08/election-workers-online-threats/
[2] https://www.cnbc.com/2022/10/27/were-going-to-hang-you-doj-cracks-down-on-threats-to-election-workers-ahead-of-high-stakes-midterms.html

About the Author

Seconded National Expert (PEA Romania)
Ingrid Bicu

Ingrid Bicu is currently serving as expert on emerging challenges, strategic communications and elections at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), seconded by the Permanent Electoral Authority of Romania.

About the Author

Research Assistant
Hyowon Park

Hyowon Park is a Research Assistant within the Electoral Processes Team, Global Programmes of International IDEA. Her portfolio consists of supporting the institute’s work on protecting elections and the climate change and democracy initiative. Hyowon joined International IDEA in July 2022.