EU needs election-meddling stress tests

Op-ed for EU Observer
Marietje

In 170 days, Europeans will go to the polls, but the right to freely choose their representatives is under threat.

With election after election facing hacking and manipulation, no-one should be naive about what is at stake in Europe.

The European Commission has proposed an action plan to EU leaders meeting in Brussels. It is a modest step in recognising, and acting on the threat.

Its practical and limited focus is a reflection of the time left in this commission's mandate and the disparate approach to the scale and shape of this challenge in EU member states.

Against that backdrop, a Rapid Alert System, a sharp eye on the platforms, and an increase in the meagre resources, will all make steps in the right direction.

However, will member state authorities blindly label the action plan as an undue involvement from Brussels and continue this patchwork of approaches?

After all, the whole of the EU is only as strong as the weakest link.

At this week's European Council, all EU27 governments must commit to making this Action Plan a baseline to step up their individual and collective actions, to face the threat to people's democratic rights head on and to build resilient solutions.

EU states should begin with stress-tests of electoral infrastructure.

Stress-tests are an established EU method to spot potential systemic weaknesses in anything from nuclear power facilities to banks.

The stress-tests could measure the security and resilience of election infrastructures and technologies.

There is already a compendium on cybersecurity of election technology that can serve as a benchmark.

The NIS Cooperation Group, which the EU created two years to combat IT threats, can serve as a good future forum to assess the challenges in this field on a rolling basis.

The stress tests should lead to a map indicating where voting machines, registers, and other digital tools need upgrading and new security measures.

But disruption is not limited to hacking.

Manipulation and undue influence also happens through party financing as well as disinformation.

According to a recent report by the French foreign ministry, Russia is responsible for 80 percent of disinformation activities in Europe, but it is certainly not the only foreign actor on the scene.

Manipulation and the erosion of trust take place via social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook.

The European Commission will monitor the commitments already entered into by platforms under an EU code of practice.

But it is unlikely that the voluntary initiatives of the major social media companies will be enough to counter the abuse of their platforms.

Without independent verification we cannot fully assess their efforts, especially when the opaque algorithms that promote disinformation are an inherent aspect of their business models.

Social media companies should provide access to real-time as well as archived information about targeted political advertising, including issue-based ads.

This kind of transparency will better inform us of the challenges we face, and allow for more targeted and effective responses.

Bots also need to transparently be identified for what they are.

What is not allowed offline should not be allowed online either.

At the heart of elections are not only national election authorities and social media companies, but also candidates and political parties.

Of course, running in elections is a competitive sport, but there should be a level playing field.

This is why the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, a group which I serve on, will be proposing a pledge to all parties and candidates to help them commit to abstaining from amplifying disinformation.

We should also help educate citizens about the various risks that exist.

With only a few months before the European elections, we cannot be ambitious enough to protect the democratic process.

If all Europeans now worried about next year's election could be reassured, and go to the polls in high numbers, the EU's democratic legitimacy would increase substantially.

At the moment, polls show that 61 percent of Europeans are concerned about elections being interfered with through cyberattacks and 59 percent are concerned about foreign actors covertly influencing votes.

Even in Italy - one of the countries considered to be lagging behind others in treating threats seriously - 66 percent are concerned about foreign actors influencing elections covertly and 79 percent are concerned about disinformation on the Internet around elections.

These deeply concerning figures deserve a strong answer.

Democratic rights cannot be taken for granted, and between the EU institutions, member states, political parties, and social media companies' preparations, we have no time to lose.

Marietje Schaake is an MEP from the Dutch D66 Party (ALDE) and a member of the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, a cross-party group of political, media and tech leaders dedicated to preventing the next wave of election interference. For more information, please go to protectelections.com