FSI scholars join high-level commission on democracy in the digital age

FSI scholars join high-level commission on democracy in the digital age

kofi annan searcey Kofi Annan speaks about the state of the world at Stanford. Rod Searcey

The Kofi Annan Foundation has tapped four Stanford scholars at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) to help advance one of its top priorities: to shed light on the rapidly-changing role of technology in elections around the world and to recommend ways of ensuring that digital tools strengthen—not undercut—democracy.

To that end, the foundation has formed the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age and named Stephen Stedman, a senior fellow at FSI and deputy director of its Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law (CDDRL), to serve as its secretary general. The Chair of the commission is the former president of Costa Rica, Laura Chinchilla.

Stedman is joined on the commission by Stanford colleagues Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer of Facebook who came to FSI as an adjunct professor earlier this year; Toomas Hendrik Ilves, the ex-president of Estonia who is now an affiliate of FSI's Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC); and Nathaniel Persily, an FSI affiliate and Stanford Law School professor.

In addition, the commission's work will be run through the university's Project on Democracy and the Internet, which is a partnership of FSI, the law school, and the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (Stanford PACS).

Kofi Annan, the former head of the United Nations and founder of the non-profit that bears his name, formed the commission earlier this year. In May, Annan visited Stanford to recruit for the commission and discuss his concerns about the growing role of the Internet—and social media, specifically—in elections worldwide.

"Kofi Annan always viewed electoral integrity as a bedrock principle in democracy and undertook a number of initiatives to counteract any attempt to undermine the voting process," said Stedman, who has led two other high-profile Annan initiatives over 15 years. "The rise of social media, fake news, hate news—the whole 'witches brew' of threats to electoral integrity globally—was of particular concern to him."

The commission's mandate is expansive: to "examine and review the opportunities for electoral integrity created by technological innovations," according to a foundation statement. Stedman adds that the plan calls for members to meet periodically before issuing their findings and recommendations before the end of 2019. As secretary general, Stedman will oversee the research and writing of the commission's final report. 

In recent years, a number of high-profile initiatives have been launched in response to technology's negative impact on the electoral process. The Kofi Annan Foundation's effort stands out for its range of expertise, said Persily: The 12 members hail from government, business, academia, and civil society and have all dealt firsthand with technology's promise and pitfalls.

"The diverse membership on this commission brings the expertise and political skills necessary to tackle these questions," said Persily. "My guess is that we won't all agree on either the nature of the problem or how to address it, but that will force us to build consensus and come up with recommendations that will make an impact." Persily co-directs the Project on Democracy and the Internet along with CDDRL director Francis Fukuyama and also leads Social Science One, a new global initiative in which academics are granted special access to Facebook data in the hopes of generating insights into social media's impact on elections around the world.

Another notable feature is the commission's geographic scope. "The United States and Europe are easy targets," said Ilves, who is involved in a number of other high-profile initiatives on technology and elections. "But the problem extends beyond the rich, northern hemisphere and that is not on people's radar screens." 

In a sign of just how urgent the role of digital tools in global elections has become, Stedman led a similar Kofi Annan Foundation commission in 2012.

"We had a lot to say six years ago about the problems affecting the integrity of elections," said Stedman, citing unfettered campaign finance and barriers to participation as examples. "But we did not anticipate the role that social media would come to play."