Archive | Electoral Fraud

More on Twittering

I tend to agree with Henry’s skeptical post. True, Andrew Sullivan is right in his response:

But in disseminating information, it has been critical.

But let’s take a wider view. If the question is simply, “Amidst an international crisis, can you learn things on Twitter (or blogs) that you can’t learn in the MSM?”, the answer will always be “Yes.” But if the question is: “How much of what is on Twitter in such circumstances is truly reliable and useful?”, then the answer is less clear. The same is true if the question is: “How can we knit together the fragmented reports available on Twitter to summarize what is going on?” Suddenly, the MSM becomes more useful.

If the topic is “disseminating information,” then Twitter can basically produce one of three outcomes:

1) “Good” information. The key element of “good” is truthful, it seems to me.
2) “Bad” information. This will be inaccurate or misleading.
3) Irrelevant information.

Most of Twitter is #3, in the sense that it’s not concerned with political news. That’s fine. If 2 million people want to “follow” Ashton Kutcher, I can’t stop them.

The bigger question is whether and how we can verify that politically relevant information is accurate. My take on Twitter-philia is that it selects on #1 and ignores #2.

The same is true with accounts of Twitter and political action (e.g, the Orange revolution), which was the focus on Henry’s post. A similar tripartite scheme holds. Technologies like Twitter may help, hurt, or be irrelevant. But we mostly hear about their apparent helpfulness. And the evidence even in those cases isn’t ironclad. Here is the conclusion from a Berkman Center case study of the Ukraine:

This working paper is part of a series examining how the Internet influences democracy. This report is a narrative case study that examines the role of the Internet and mobile phones during Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution. The first section describes the online citizen journalists who reported many stories left untouched by self censored mainstream journalists. The second section investigates the use of digital networked technologies by pro-democracy organizers. This case study concludes with the statement that the Internet and mobile phones made a wide range of activities easier, however the Orange Revolution was largely made possible by savvy activists and journalists willing to take risks to improve their country.

I don’t take this case study as definitive proof, but surely it’s right to note that any technology is only one part of the story, and not necessarily the most important part.

And there is one other point, which Henry alludes to. What about those cases where the technology is successful, but successful in promoting something bad? The Berkman Center’s case study of Kenya concludes:

Written largely through the lens of rich nations, scholars have developed theories about how digital technology affects democracy. However, largely due to a paucity of evidence, these theories have excluded the experience of Sub-Saharan Africa, where meaningful access to digital tools is only beginning to emerge, but where the struggles between failed state and functioning democracy are profound. Using the lens of the 2007-2008 Kenyan Presidential Election Crisis, this case study illustrates how digitally networked technologies, specifically mobile phones and the Internet, were a catalyst to both predatory behavior such as ethnic-based mob violence and to civic behaviors such as citizen journalism and human rights campaigns. The paper concludes with the notion that while digital tools can help promote transparency and keep perpetrators from facing impunity, they can also increase the ease of promoting hate speech and ethnic divisions.

Again, there is no definitive proof here, but the mere possibility is worth keeping in mind.

Sixteen years ago, Larry Bartels wrote:

The state of research on media effects is one of the most notable embarrassments of modern social science. The pervasiveness of the mass media and their virtual monopoly over the presentation of many kinds of information must suggest to reasonable observers that what these media say and how they say it has enormous social and political consequences. Nevertheless, the scholarly literature has been much better at refuting, qualifying, and circumscribing the thesis of media impact than at supporting it.

I can’t see that research into “new media” is any different, at least at this early stage.

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What If We Twittered the Revolution and Nobody Came?

Marc Ambinder tells us that the Revolution Will Be Twittered.

… when histories of the Iranian election are written, Twitter will doubtless be cast as a protagonal technology that enabled the powerless to survive a brutal crackdown and information blackout by the ruling authorities. … as Iranian authorities shut down internet servers, it allowed younger protesters… to organize and to follow updates by Mir Hossein Mousavi; by spreading the word about the location of government crackdowns and the threat of machine-gun-wielding soldiers, it probably saved the lives of any number of would-be revolutionaries. … In this way, Twitter served as an intelligence service for the Iranian opposition. There are even hints that, once Iranian authorities figured this out, they attempted to spread misinformation via Twitter.
The second element is less important but more relevant to politics here at home. Given the popularity of Twitter with American political activists on the right and the left, and given the near-universal language of the Iranian twitterers’ cry from freedom, it was almost inevitable that prominent political activists here would retweet and take up their cause. … There is a now a rare and perhaps tenuous solidarity among left and right about Iran, a conviction that the United States government has to support the protesters, has to declare the election invalid, has to deny the action by the sovereign (albeit corrupt) Iranian government. The position of the Obama administration is more cautious and calculating. As painful as the images of revolution may be, as heart-rending as the suffering of the Iranian people may seem, the principle foreign policy priority of the United States vis-a-vis Iran is about Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. An administration official said over the weekend that the U.S. would talk to the government of Iran as it was, not the government of Iran that it wanted. Indeed, regime change is not and has never been part of the Obama calculus.

As someone who has thought a reasonable amount over the past few years about the relationship between information technology and political action, I am somewhat skeptical of these claims (I also don’t know what the word ‘protagonal’ means, but that’s a whole different issue). First – while Twitter (like SMS) can be used to organize protests on the fly, I haven’t yet seen any evidence that it made a substantial difference to organizing efforts in Iran. This is not to say that it didn’t – but we need good evidence (which will require Persian language expertise, obviously) of correlation between specific bursts of Twitter communication and forms of social protest etc before we can really be sure that there was an effect. What we can say is that previous instances of ‘color revolution’ relied much less on technology than you would have thought from reading Western media. New technologies tend to be less reliable and more easily disrupted than traditional forms of organizing – while they are surely becoming more important over time, I think it is fair to discount some of the more breathlessly enthusiastic reporting until the actual evidence comes in.

Second – it is all very nice if left and rightwing bloggers agree on the normative valence of the apparent election fraud – but does it actually matter? Almost certainly not – unless it reshapes US policy, which, in this instance, it doesn’t seem to be doing. And is there a consensus among bloggers that the US government should declare the elections invalid? I am not seeing this consensus myself – and perhaps for good reason. Given America’s highly problematic history in Iran, an overly obtrusive condemnation or demand from the US administration would very possibly backfire. Perhaps realpolitik is driving Barack Obama’s reticence – but perhaps it is also a recognition that it is much better for him to speak softly than to wave his big stick around.

None of this is to deny that communications technologies can be important to revolutions and mass protests. Given the difficulties of coordination and collective action, communication is key to shaping people’s expectations about whether they can and should participate in social protest. Dennis Chong’s classic study of the US civil rights movement gets at this very nicely, as does some of Russell Hardin’s work. There is a reason why coup-plotters have traditionally tried for the radio and television stations. But there is also a tendency among US journalists and commentators to fetishize sophisticated technologies when very often, it is decidedly unsophisticated methods of communicating solidarity (such as pot-banging) and organization (leaflets, posters) that work best.

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The Origins of Electoral Fraud

While the political equality offered by universal, equal, direct suffrage was, and continues to be, regarded as potentially transformative, its impact is conditional and can be diminished if introduced into settings marked by stark socioeconomic inequalities and steep social hierarchies. Electoral fraud and manipulation are the result when democracy bumps up against economic inequality…

That is from new research by Daniel Ziblatt of Harvard University. His focus is 19th century Germany, but those are the broader implications. The mechanism he identifies may also have analogues in other countries:

…landed elites seek to preserve their electoral dominance in the countryside but no longer do so inside a direct patron-client relationship. Instead, they exert influence indirectly via the capture of rural local public officials such as mayors, county commissioners, police officials, and election officials, who in turn are the actors that interfere with free and fair elections. In its most acute form, capture occurs as socioeconomic interests infiltrate the state by using their own personnel to staff the state

Indeed, elections can even be dangerous in this way:

…Elections in nondemocratic regimes can potentially bolster entrenched interests, buying greater legitimacy for imperfect regimes, thereby extending their life span. Thus, we need not only focus on the “adoption” or short-term “choice” of democratic procedures as most empirical work continues to do but also to examine the long-term process of democratization as it confronts, and is shaped by, a variety of “push-back” tactics such as election manipulation that are deployed with the goal of making elections endogenous to preexisting social power.

The paper is here (ungated).

An estimated Gini coefficient for Iran is here, and it is not small.

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Electoral Fraud: Is 75% the new 52%?

In a NY Times editorial last week titled Counting Votes: Kremlin Style, the editors referenced the recent mayoral elections in Sochi, Russia, where the ruling United Russia party’s candidate won the election in the first round with 77%. (As an aside, one may wonder why the NY Times editorial page was discussing a Russian mayoral election. The simple answer is that in Russia national elections are no longer competitive and governors are appointed by the president, so you really have to get to the mayoral level to find anything remotely interesting going on; indeed, the ruling party actually a lost a mayoral election recently in far Northern city of Murmansk). Sochi is going to be the home of the 2014 Winter Olympics, making the Kremlin particularly interested in the winner of this election. And as expected, there were lots of shenanigans involved in the Sochi elections, nicely laid out in a post on Radio Free Liberty’s Russia Blog The Power Vertical.

All of which led to the following question posed by the NY Times:

Why not all of the vote, as in Soviet times? Or a clear but less suspicious victory, like 55 percent?

A potential answer is that one legacy of the “Colored Revolutions” that swept through the post-communist region in the middle of this decade has been a realization that the time to falsify election results is before election day, and that relying on last minute manipulations of results is potentially not as reliable a means for holding on to power as was previously thought. (I had actually suggested that exactly this lesson could be learned by autocrats in the region in an article in _Perspectives on Politics_ a couple of years ago. For work on this topic outside of the post-communist region, see Nahomi Ichino’s work on pre-election fraud in Ghana.)

As it turns out, however, Alberto Simpser has a new paper on exactly this topic of the size of electoral margins and electoral fraud, entitled Cheating Big: On the Logic of Electoral Corruption in Developing Countries. The abstract reads:

Why do politicians manipulate elections excessively? The conventional wisdom associates electoral manipulation with close elections and small margins of victory. In fact, however, many manipulated elections are won by overwhelming margins of victory, and some elections are manipulated even though the result is scarcely in doubt. I present a theory about the incentives that shape electoral manipulation under conditions that often characterize developing countries. The central idea is that in such settings, electoral manipulation, in addition to directly affecting vote totals, can influence expectations and consequently impact patterns of political participation. This simple idea goes a long way toward explaining observed patterns: When large-scale manipulation can help to deter opponents in the future, politicians may purposefully use it beyond the point necessary for victory. Evidence from a variety of regions and time periods suggests that large-scale manipulation and overwhelming margins of victory have often had such an effect.

Any other research on this topic out there?

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