‘Europe’s most hackable election.’ That is how Lauren Cerelus Politico referred to the 2019 European Elections for Politico. But what does ‘Hacking’ even mean?
Originally, a hacker essentially meant a computer thug; an ill-intentioned person using digital devices to commit crimes or mischief. In the software community, it does not necessarily have this bad connotation anymore and may refer to any skilled programmer adeptly solving computer problems. The term evolved out of the tech world and draws on the latter notion of problem solving – think of the expression ‘life hacks.’
Here, I would like to shortly present the two ways one might want to hack these EU elections: by tampering with them or by solving the low engagement problem of EU elections.
‘Hacking’ as in electoral interference
This can be done in several ways. One way is by manipulating information through disinformation and misleading political advertising, as was the case in the Brexit campaign. Another way is to directly hack a party’s infrastructure to release damaging information – think of the 2016 Democratic National Committee email leaks.
The January 2019 data hack of several major German political parties has been a wake-up call ahead of the EU elections. There have been accounts of such interferences in the 2019 European elections by Russian hackers. One group of hackers known as Fancy Bear was also accused of being behind the 2016 DNC leaks, and is considered to be linked to operations run by the Kremlin.
To target the issue of misinformation through social media, Facebook has created a ‘European election operations center.’ This comes as the reputational wound of the Cambridge Analytica scandal is still fresh for the company, and as populist and far-right parties dominate the political debate on the platform.
Such parties would benefit from Russian interferences as they are typically friendly towards the Kremlin. For instance, the French National Front (now known as the National Rally) partially financed its 2017 Presidential race thanks to loans by Russian banks close to the Putin government.
The spread of disinformation about the EU, elites, migrants and minorities accentuates feelings of resentment, and may lead to a loss of faith in the democratic process in general. This is particularly acute with EU elections, as they are mostly considered second-tier elections and have historically had low and declining turn-out rates. This can be explained by a lack of understanding of the functioning of the EU by its citizens.
‘Hacking’ as in solving the low engagement problem of EU elections
Against that backdrop, start-ups known as ‘civic tech’ are using new technologies and apps to try and re-connect citizens to their leaders and institutions. Civic tech aims to permit ‘greater participation in government or otherwise assists government in delivering citizen services and strengthening ties with the public.’
A hackathon is ‘a gathering where programmers collaboratively code in an extreme manner over a short period of time.’ The idea of civic tech is basically to bring the culture of hackathons to solve problems in our democratic societies, such as low election turn-outs and voter disengagement; in other words to ‘hack’ elections.
For example, TYC, a civic tech start-up, is directly involved in the European elections campaign. The company describes its mission as ‘giving political and public actors the means to be the closest to each of us.’
Among other things, TYC helps with creating citizens’ consultations, mobilising activists on social media, and helping citizens gather information about a political party’s programme. It is partnering up with the French Republican party in the 2019 European elections by creating a chat-bot on Messenger to answer potential voters’ questions.
In the words of one of its founders: ‘Our tools are designed to simplify the access to information for citizens when they want to interact with public and political actors.’
EU institutions and Member States are in dire need to reconnect their citizens with the European institutions. Civic tech is an unconventional new way to do so.
In 2014, the Danish Parliament attempted to raise awareness about the 2014 EU elections in an unconventional way too. It published a video in which a sort of super hero called Vote Man resorted to extreme methods to get people to vote. It was so NSFW that it even got banned from Danish television
Don’t forget to vote on 23-26 May! As a kind reminder to those of us in the South of Sweden, remember that, if you don’t vote, Denmark’s Vote Man is not too far and will come to get you and make you vote. You’ve been warned.