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Democracy hacked?

Adopting a draft resolution on “Democracy hacked? How to respond?”, scheduled for debate at the PACE winter session (Strasbourg, 27-31 January 2020), the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy expressed its concern about the scale of information pollution in a digitally connected and increasingly polarised world, the spread of disinformation campaigns aimed at shaping public opinion, trends of foreign electoral interference and manipulation, as well as abusive behaviours and hate amplification on the internet and social media.

“As the Internet seeps into more aspects of our political lives, there is a need for improvements in both its content and architecture, and to protect the electoral process and the very essence of democracy from its ‘hackers’,” they said. “If citizens are unable to distinguish between false and true data and are unaware of the conditions under which they exercise their rights and freedoms, the purity of their will might be compromised, as well as the democratic legitimacy of the elections themselves,” they underlined.

Furthermore, the monitoring of people's online activity without their consent and for the purpose of exploiting their behavioural paths contradicts not only the very principle of free and fair elections but also their right to privacy.

“Disinformation, foreign interference, abusive behaviour, hate amplification, trolling, identity theft, are just some of the symptoms of ‘democracy hacking’. I believe it is time for all Council of Europe member States to assume greater responsibility and to work to combat disinformation, preserve the integrity of elections, protect democracy and strengthen the principle of accountability on the part of social media themselves,” said the rapporteur Frithjof Schmidt (Germany, SOC).

Among the measures proposed in its draft resolution, the committee points to the need to improve the Internet’s content and architecture, build up the resilience of Europe’s democratic systems and societies, counter disinformation, invest in quality journalism and preserve freedom of expression of the media and political pluralism, especially in the context of elections.

In this context, the committee also refers to a series of existing Council of Europe instruments, such as the Convention for the Protection of Individuals with regard to Automatic Processing of Personal Data, and calls for the creation of a model that includes co-responsibility and multiple regulatory and conflict-resolution approaches, in particular by:

• promoting media education and digital literacy skills,
• encouraging and supporting collaborative fact-checking initiatives,
• securing adequate funding for independent public service media,
• strengthening transparency in political online advertising,
• developing specific regulatory frameworks for internet content at election times,
• supporting researchers’ access to data,
• considering national and international regulation to share best practices whilst increasing security agency co-operation,
• calling on professionals and organisations in the media sector to develop self-regulation frameworks, initiating judicial reforms and setting up specialised divisions for judges and prosecutors focusing on disinformation and hate speech.

The committee also stressed its support for the efforts of the Venice Commission to prepare a list of principles for the use of digital technologies in the context of elections.