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Global Elections Tracker - How Tech, AI, and Disinformation is Shaping Global Politics

In a year of global democracy, where it is estimated that half of the world’s population will head to the polls, we at the Campaign On Digital Ethics (CODE) thought it might be useful to provide you with quick monthly snapshots on the outcomes of these electoral processes.

We are tracking elections across the globe, with a specific focus on how technology, disinformation, and artificial intelligence (AI) may be influencing electoral outcomes. This month, we focus on elections that took place in Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Indonesia, Cambodia, and Belarus. 

Azerbaijan - 7 February 2024

Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev has secured a fifth term with over 92% of the vote in a snap election originally scheduled for 2025, following a significant military victory in Nagorno-Karabakh. The election, which saw a 76% turnout and had Aliyev competing against six non-oppositional candidates, has been criticised by international observers and boycotted by the main rival parties, raising concerns over its legitimacy and the absence of meaningful competition. This victory, celebrated by thousands in Baku, continues Aliyev's long-standing rule since 2003, amid accusations of suppressing political dissent, controlling the media, and restricting freedoms. The election's backdrop includes Azerbaijan's contentious reclaiming of Nagorno-Karabakh, described by Aliyev as an "epochal event."

Additionally, recent legislation such as a 2022 media law and a subsequent law on political parties, as well as internet shutdowns, further restricted political discourse during the elections. Late last year, eight journalists were arrested and placed in pre-trial detention. They face charges related to "foreign currency smuggling" as a pretext for receiving foreign funding, amidst a broader government strategy to monopolise media narratives and suppress independent reporting. This crackdown and suppression on media freedom allows for misinformation, disinformation, and a general lack of information to run rampant.

Pakistan - 8 February 2024 

Pakistan's elections saw independent candidates linked to ex-Prime Minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party secure the most parliamentary seats, according to official results. No party achieved the 169-seat majority needed to form a government, leaving Pakistan without an elected Prime Minister at the time of writing. 

In the lead-up to the general elections, the country's voters were exposed to a significant amount of disinformation, notably through deepfake videos. Among the instances of misuse were deepfake videos of key political figures, including former Prime Minister Imran Khan and PTI-backed candidates, falsely announcing boycotts of the election.

The proliferation of misinformation posed a grave threat to the integrity of the electoral process, as Sadaf Khan, co-founder of Media Matters for Democracy, has emphasized. 

Furthermore, the growing phenomenon of state-sponsored blocks and/ or restrictions on access to the internet was once again observed leading up to Pakistan’s elections. This in turn further exacerbated the spread of false information by impeding media efforts to debunk falsehoods promptly.

Some experts optimistically believe that despite the challenges posed by AI-generated misinformation, there are promising opportunities. AI has the potential to identify and counteract fraudulent content, supporting efforts to verify information accurately. However, without the required and extensive legal frameworks needed to address AI-generated  disinformation, these positives may never manifest. 

Indonesia - 14 February 2024

Indonesia held the fifth direct presidential and vice-presidential election of its democratic era. Over 204 million registered voters across the archipelago flocked to polling stations to cast their votes. The candidates were Anies Baswedan and his running mate Muhaimin Iskandar, who were backed by the Coalition of Change for Unity; Prabowo Subianto and his running mate Gibran Rakabuming Raka, who were backed by the Advanced Indonesia Coalition; and Ganjar Pranowo and his running mate Mahfud MD, backed by the Alliance of Parties.

Prabowo claimed victory the same day, and as of 29 February, an official count from the General Elections Commission gives him 58.8% of the vote, followed by Baswedan with 24.5% and Pranowo with 16.7% - this after verification progress of 77.4% at the time of writing. Activists are reported to be fearful of what a Prabowo victory will mean for accountability and human rights in Indonesia.

But before election day AI had already reared its ugly head, in the form of a deepfake video of former president Suharto, a dictator and corrupt authoritarian, which  prompted X (Twitter) to tag it as ‘manipulated media’.

Prabowo also used social media and generative AI to cunningly portray himself in a much more attractive light, looking avuncular and approachable. Videos of him tenderly cuddling his cat appeared on Instagram and a sweet cartoon version of him was reportedly created using Midjourney – despite that tool’s rule that it may not be used for political campaigning.

This tactic is viewed as making him more appealing to younger voters who are not old enough to remember his dark past.

Cambodia - 25 February 2024

Cambodia went to the polls for its fifth Senate election. The outcome was assured even before the first vote was cast, as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) dominates in both the National Assembly and the local communes. 

Commune councillors and National Assembly members select, by vote, who will occupy 58 of the 62 seats in the Senate. Two of the remaining four seats are chosen by the country’s king and the other two by the National Assembly alone.

Thus, with the CPP claiming ‘victory’ in a largely one-sided election, its leader Hun Sen will become Senate president, cementing the party’s hold on legislative power as well as the patronage system established by Hun Sen, who has served as prime minister since 1985.

Last year’s Cambodian general election saw Hun Sen win virtually unopposed, after he banned his only significant opposition, the Candlelight party, from contesting. The reason was seemingly spurious, as Hun Sen claimed the party had failed to provide all required documentation, while a Candlelight spokesperson said it had contested recent local elections without any problems or challenges.

This paved the way for Hun Sen to hand over power to his son Hun Manet, a general in the country’s army and a graduate of West Point military academy in the US. Reports say that Hun Manet is viewed as being much less authoritarian than his father, who has ruled since 1985, but soon after he took over there were claims of dissidents being attacked.

Hun Sen has been implicated in a wide range of human rights abuses, from torturing

political prisoners to victimisation, spurious prosecution, and killing of political opponents, and trade union members. 

Additionally, Hun Sen's government has severely suppressed independent media, leading to the closure of critical outlets like Voice of Democracy and previously The Cambodia Daily and the Phnom Penh Post, marking a steep decline in press freedom in the country. Cambodia ranks poorly on the Reporters Without Borders Index and has seen numerous journalists harassed and killed, creating a climate of fear. Hun Sen's crackdown aimed to consolidate his power and silence opposition, using state-sponsored disinformation and social media manipulation to his advantage.

Belarus - 25 February 2024 

In Belarus, parliamentary and local elections solidified President Alexander Lukashenko's 30-year authoritarian rule, with only pro-Lukashenko candidates allowed, leading the opposition to call for a boycott. Despite this, the government reported a 73% voter turnout, filling all parliamentary and local council seats with Lukashenko supporters. 

Amidst ongoing repression, with over 1,400 political prisoners, Lukashenko aims to establish a new All-Belarus Popular Assembly with broad powers, indicating his intent to maintain tight control ahead of next year's presidential election. 

Critics and human rights organisations have expressed deep concerns over the election's integrity, highlighting the government's efforts to suppress dissent and control the political narrative. The atmosphere leading up to the 2024 elections was described as being heavily manipulated through repression, arbitrary arrests, and the systematic elimination of viable political opposition. This has led to a political landscape in Belarus where the conditions for free and fair elections are practically absent​​. Moreover, Belarusians living abroad were disenfranchised by a new rule preventing them from voting at embassies, impacting over 1.8 million people​​.

A month before the elections, in January 2024, the European Commission urged Google

and other tech giants to boost the visibility of dissident Belarusian media to counteract the dominance of pro-regime content and disinformation, which is allegedly favoured by current search algorithms. Belarusian journalists in exile have reported that critical content is not reaching audiences due to these algorithms adhering to Lukashenko's censorship rules. European Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová emphasised the importance of promoting reliable information over propaganda from Minsk and Moscow. Critics have argued that tech companies inadvertently support Lukashenko’s regime by downgrading banned media in search results, thereby hindering the visibility of independent channels.

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