Workshop: Democracy Under Attack?

Time: 09:30 - 17:00

Venue: Room IT407, University of Manchester

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A workshop organised by the Alan Turing Institute and the University of Manchester

This workshop will bring together practitioners and academics to discuss the primary security and legitimacy challenges that digital technologies raise for the conduct of democratic elections.

Attendance is by invitation only so if you are interested in attending/speaking please email digitalfutures@manchester.ac.uk by 29th March. If you are would like to speak at the event, please provide a title & short abstract for your talk.

Background to the Workshop

Recent revelations about the unofficial use of individuals’ social media profiles by political campaigns in the UK and the U.S., foreign hacking of national party HQ email accounts, and the circulation of fake news stories by Russian troll factories have generated significant concern among the public and governing elites about the resilience of their electoral processes. Coordinated attempts by domestic or foreign forces to manipulate voter choices and ultimately change election outcomes clearly raise major practical concerns about how to preserve the integrity of our electoral systems. They also raise even deeper problems of legitimacy and how to maintain voters’ faith in our democratic institutions. The repetition of such practices is likely to undermine citizen confidence in the system in the longer term and contribute to rising levels of popular distrust and cynicism toward elites and governing bodies.

The workshop is designed to promote in depth discussion between academics and policy makers about the political and security risks that the use of digital technologies and particularly social media networks pose for democratic processes. It will do so by a series of short talks by academic experts that will focus on key challenge areas:

  • Challenge area 1: What is the real nature and scale of the threat that such practices present to our democracy?
  • Challenge area 2: How are these practices implemented and scaled up? How do external actors seek to influence our electoral system and governing institutions using digital tools and how is misinformation spread?
  • Challenge area 3: What are the main effects of these problems for society, government bodies and regulators, political parties, and individual citizens?
  • Challenge area 4: What can be done about to protect UK democracy against these threats?

The challenge areas 1-3 will feature short 20 mins presentations by a range of leading academics. Challenge area 4 will be an all group discussion. 

Representatives from the policy community will play a valuable part in this workshop, and in the final plenary session. We hope to have representatives from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Home Office, Cabinet Office, the Information Commissioner’s Office, the Electoral Commission, and the Office of HMG’s Chief Scientific Advisor for National Security participating in the workshop. Involvement of these analyst communities will ensure that the policy relevant aspects of the research are identified and communicated to key actors within government.

Based on this exploratory workshop a larger co-organised policy-oriented conference will be proposed as a follow-up.