Looking to secure elections? Strengthen cyber defences and provide information security training for citizens and politicians alike

In this super election year, disinformation and cyberattacks pose the most imminent threats to upcoming elections in Europe. Over the long term, however, election interference from abroad is more likely to take place through voter manipulation than through direct attacks on the electoral system.

These are two of the most important lessons learned from Hybrid CoE’s recent work studying election interference and ways to prevent it.

“European officials should prioritize strengthening cybersecurity defences for electoral systems, enhancing public awareness campaigns to combat disinformation, and building capacity to identify and counter disinformation-fuelled threats and violence in the physical domain,” writes election security expert Sebastian Bay in Hybrid CoE’s latest piece of research on countering election interference.

To help governments secure elections against hybrid threats, Bay outlines a framework that consists of nine key actions for governments to take:

  1. putting together a robust and evolving legal framework;
  2. identifying and assessing risks and vulnerabilities in the electoral system;
  3. enhancing the resilience of the electoral system;
  4. combatting the effects of electoral information influence activities by communicating and training;
  5. establishing effective cooperation among various authorities and entities;
  6. conducting exercises to test and evaluate the effectiveness of existing security measures and responses;
  7. establishing incident reporting, early warning, and detection mechanisms;
  8. responding to threats through a collaborative approach; and,
  9. should any threats materialize, restoring normalcy to the election process by addressing and rectifying the immediate impacts of the threats or attacks.

In another cornerstone of Hybrid CoE’s counter-election interference work, researcher Veronika Krátka Špalková and analyst Andrej Poleščuk point out that foreign election interference usually occurs at the level of long-term manipulation of citizens. Thus, protective measures should focus on the overall resilience of the population to foreign influence.

Špalková and Poleščuk recommend that states put effort into cyber and information security training for citizens, as well as advanced and specialized cybersecurity training for political candidates, politicians, and political parties. Finally, they recommend fundamental legislative and systemic changes to secure elections.

“Under current legislation in several countries, it is almost impossible to react to election interference by foreign actors due to the lack of precise and constitutionally conforming definitions of what an influence operation is, who should be held accountable for the deliberate dissemination of false information, and what the penalty should be in such cases. These should be defined in the legislation,” they write.

Based on its work on countering election interference, Hybrid CoE offers its Participating States various training sessions and briefings on election security, and how to counter hybrid threats against elections throughout the current super election year.

The work will culminate in a closed event for Hybrid CoE’s Participating States that aims to collect and share best practices and lessons learned during the elections in 2024.

“I would like to encourage all our Participating States to track any hybrid threat activity against their elections and discuss the cases with us. This will help us at Hybrid CoE to help you strengthen your election security in the long run,” says Susanna Kujanpää, who leads the Preventing Election Interference workstrand.

The two reports on election security can be read in full here:

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Cyber Disinformation Election interference