Johnny Foreigner and our elections

Welcome to this blog post! Perhaps you got here through our targeted ads on social media. We are running these ads to show just how easy it is to target small groups of New Zealanders with online advertising.

Last week we submitted to Parliament’s Justice Committee on the topic of foreign interference in our elections (you can read our submission here). The Justice Committee reopened submissions on their inquiry into the 2016 local elections and 2017 general elections.

They do one of these inquiries during every electoral cycle. Usually it’s pretty dry stuff recommending technical changes to electoral law and entertaining the idea of online voting in local elections. But re-opening submissions to focus on foreign interference is something I’ve not seen during my policy career.

That’s because the world is changing. As we set out in our previous submission to the Committee last year, influence campaigns are becoming more common. Since 2010 Oxfords’ Internet Institute has documented 48 campaigns of “computational propaganda”. Then there’s the Russian interference in the US 2016 Election, and Professor Brady’s Magic Weapons piece focussed on Chinese influence.

In preparing our submission we read that 50% of OECD nations have been the target of electoral influence campaigns in recent electoral cycles. That’s… a lot.

The geopolitical analyst in me says, we shouldn’t be surprised by these things. Power politics tells us that nation-States will always seek to interfere and nudge the political contests of their adversaries and allies alike to try and get favourable results for them.

But the web and social media makes online influence campaigns easy to start, scale and execute.

That means it’s on us, as a country and society, to be ready for foreign influence during our 2020 Election. Our PM is now viewed as one of the standard-bearers for progressive movements around the world (especially by the alt-right for being young, a woman and empathetic). Since the Christchurch terrorist attack we’ve been outspoken against neo-nazis and our parliament’s swift work to tighten our gun laws drew the ire of one of the USA’s most powerful lobby groups – the NRA. That’s a cocktail of motivations for overseas countries, lobby groups and trolls to try and mess with our democracy.

We’ve recommended changes to electoral advertising spending limits and said that only New Zealanders should be able to fund electoral advertising. This is our democracy (all of us), not anyone else’s and we should make sure we have the rules, systems, processes and tools to discourage interference, detect and react to influence campaigns.

We want the next, and every, general election to be a fair fight, about the policies and issues that we face as a nation. We deserve action to keep our democracy free from foreign interference. We do NOT want to be in a situation in 2021 like we’re seeing in the US where one “side” of politics feels the election was stolen and the other won’t talk about, or take, reasonable steps to protect their democratic processes and institutions in case it makes them look like they didn’t deserve to win.

Interfering with democratic elections is the new black. New Zealand has a solid history of making changes to our electoral laws in a non-partisan way.  Wanting to keep New Zealand’s elections for New Zealanders should be non-partisan too. Let’s take steps to protect our elections now so we don’t have to  make changes later in a highly partisan, contentious political environment.

We’re better than that.