Charting a course for liberalism in the information age

Jul 12, 2018

Election Hacking and the Global Politics of Attention

Fears of internet borne electoral interference have spurred even liberal states to assert a collective right to attention.

Fears over “election-hacking” in the 2016 U.S., U.K., French and German elections left these states with a variety of notoriously controversial questions: did Russia do it? If they did try - as the Mueller indictment among a variety of sources affirms - was it effective? It is obviously important to answer these questions. However, if we abstract from them momentarily, a puzzling question lies underneath. If a state interferes with another state’s politics, is it wrong? On what grounds?

This question can prove thorny for liberals: how can we object to foreign interference without implicitly justifying information control? Complaints over foreign propaganda have uncomfortable implications: if funding online advertisements counts as unacceptable foreign meddling, why doesn’t funding radio stations like Radio Free Europe (as Russia Today points out)? What – precisely – is unethical about interference anyway? This blog posts suggests that we might be able to find some clarity on these issues from an unexpected source: the emerging literature on digital design ethics.

Digital environments are often designed to pilfer your attention. The ‘…’ that comes up when you’re waiting for someone to text you back keeps you at your screen, waiting for a reward. Facebook and Twitter feeds auto-refresh without prompting to keep you scrolling. Bright red notifications remind us of our desire for social interaction. Persuasive design might be annoying, but is it also in some sense unethical? Imagine a student, Ania, has a goal, such as completing an essay. Each time she is distracted by a Facebook notification, she will stop working on the essay. If this distraction persists, she may fail to submit the essay entirely, or submit a worse essay than the one she intended. Has Ania somehow been the target of injustice?

Smartphones are powerful tools that we use to accomplish a variety of professional and social goals. If they become distractions, we often blame ourselves for our lack of self-control and focus. An emerging literature on the ethics of attention seeks to challenge this view and create ethical guidelines for technology designers, primarily those whose business model is based on advertising. It suggests that attention-grabbing intrusions can be unethical. For example, advertisements which use false claims to catch your attention are unethical because their methods are dishonest. Likewise, smartphone or platform design which uses non-rational psychological biases – such as the ‘distributed rewards’ associated with slot machines - to keep you on the site might be exploitative or manipulative.

James Williams, former Google employee turned attention activist (as well as a fellow researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute), argues a more insidious ethical issue exists because platforms have fundamentally different motivations than their users: they seek to earn profit by maximising ‘Time on Site’ or ‘Number of Page Views’, rather than helping users pursue their own goals. These motivations are not necessarily inherently unethical – arguably, this is no different from any other economic interaction - but they become problematic when they result in a systematic drain on user’s time and attention. Although Ania may blame herself – and we would likely agree her lack of self-control is the primary cause - the design of her social media platform is at least partially at fault.

In the short term, distractions can keep us from executing an action we intended to accomplish. In the long term, however, they can undermine our capacity for reflection and self-regulation, making it hard to (in the words of philosopher Harry Frankfurt), “want what we want to want.” One ad or attractive shop sign does not necessarily violate an individual’s “freedom of attention”; ethical concerns with attention hijacking arise when systematic distractions infringe on individual freedom and agency. Crucially, attention hijacking is similar but not identical to persuasion. Ania’s Facebook notification does not need to persuade her of any specific idea or value (i.e. finishing essays is bad) to stop her from accomplishing her goal.


Ethicists of attention are usually concerned with the individual level. However, I believe they provide a useful framework for understanding disruptive and confusing phenomena in modern politics. Take, for example, the issue of “election-hacking:” a phrase that has come to denote anything from foreign-funded targeted advertising, fake or biased news stories delivered by networks of false accounts or bots, “data dumps” of politician’s private communication, to infiltration of voting systems. Such intrusions are alarming; however, it can be difficult to articulate what, precisely, is ethically wrong with this kind of electoral interference.

Of course, it can also mean actually hacking into election infrastructure. While this is also the subject of some fascinating debates [pdf], hacking election infrastructure obviously violates the rights of individual citizens to express their political preferences. However, the remaining issues are more ambiguous. For example, one might object to leaked information on the grounds of privacy violations or – in cases such as the Macron leak where information seems to have been altered - deception. However, leaked information is often simply released rather than altered or deleted. Transparency activists might tell you that revealing true details about candidates and parties – as Wiki Leaks did in revealing the Democratic National Committee’s emails – means that voters have access to more information. How can knowing more about John Podesta or Hillary Clinton mean that we are deceived?

Many commentators argue that “data dumps” are objectionable not necessarily because of the information they contain, but because of the method of their release. Some aspect of human psychology finds the prospect of previously secret information which has now been released irresistible, leaking information gives it an “illicit aura” which dominates the news cycle, crowding out other stories and topics. We can, perhaps usefully, think of such illicit convulsions as nation-level distractions.

Furthermore, Russian political advertising strategies which involve partial information, bias, and micro-targeting were very similar to strategies we generally tolerate when deployed by political parties. As many commentators have pointed out, the targeted political advertisements attributed to Russian intelligence simply used Facebook and other social media platforms exactly as they were intended to be used by corporate and political online advertisers. From this perspective, the primary thing Russian political advertisers did wrong was be foreign.

Of course, the use of ads in election hacking set off a heated debate in which some have suggested that such advertisements should never have been tolerated in the first place. This is an important discussion to have. However, if we assume a targeted ad partial to one candidate is ethically permissible, why is it unethical for it to be funded by a foreign state?

In his assessment of Russian “cyber interference” in the 2016 election, Cornell Law professor Jens Ohlin argues that many existing international law concepts cannot be easily applied to this case. Under public international law, states are prohibited from interfering with each other’s sovereignty. The UN Charter prohibit states from the “the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state” (U.N. Charter art. 2. 4). However, this and other prohibitions against intervention rely on the concept of coercion. Coercion does not seem to be present in election hacking as it is not clear who was threatened and what they were threatened with.

Ohlin suggests self-determination as an alternative approach. The legal doctrine of self-determination expresses the right of a “people to decide, for themselves, both their political arrangements (at a systematic level) and their future destiny (at the more granular level of policy).” Although he explicitly states he does not wish to make a full assessment of Russian interference, Ohlin suggests: “in the absence of the Russian interference, the election would have proceeded quite differently, suggesting that the actions of Russia distorted and interfered with the American people’s right of self-determination.”

However, this argument has a significant drawback, as he does not specify what he means by “proceeded differently.” As he himself points out, “no one denies that Putin would have been permitted to speak publicly on Russia Today … to urge all Americans to vote for [Trump].” Surely this and any other statement by a foreign leader may mean an election “proceeds differently” in some sense. If Putin publicly endorsing Trump is not an illegitimate interference, why does the DNC leak and spreading fake news constitute a violation of self-determination? Would Obama’s visit to the UK, along with his warning that Britain would find itself “in the back of the queue” for a trade deal should Leave win, have been decried as outcome interference had Remain won?  If, in contrast, Ohlin is making the stronger claim that the election outcome would have been different, this is an unverifiable counterfactual.

Attention as the Missing Element

The diverse strategies described as “election-hacking” are united by the fact that, when executed well, they are enormously effective at capturing our attention. Political advertisements benefit from tools such as micro-targeting and AB testing developed to capture consumer eyeballs. Fake news and strategic leaks spread outrage and scandal which we find difficult to ignore.

A clear parallel to individual distraction exists at the collective level of a political community. Just as a student intends to finish an essay, we can assume that – on some level - citizens in democratic states intend to elect representative leaders through a process of deliberation, hence delegating their future destiny for a fixed term (of course, there are many objections to this, some of which will be addressed later). However, the idea of deliberative democracy presupposes, at the very least, that citizens pay attention to political candidates for some period before the election.

Not all members of a democratic political community intend to vote or even believe in democracy. Citizens also disagree about many subjects (such as economic policy) or values (such as the trade-off between security and privacy). However, a crucial subset of citizens do at least agree that such disagreements should be resolved through an electoral process. The more people engage in elections and vote, the more a democratic community’s goals are fulfilled. In fact, many commonly stated anxieties about lower engagement, participation and voter apathy can actually be usefully understood as concern over insufficient attention which decreases the legitimacy of elections.

Conversely, if individual citizens get distracted, fail to vote, or vote based on flawed information, the supra-agent’s goal of electing a legitimate government is harmed. Recall that Ania need only be distracted by a Facebook notification (rather than convinced that her finishing her essay is bad) to hurt her goal of writing a good essay. Likewise, a foreign adversary can disrupt and confuse a collective attention space rather than convincing an electorate not to vote for a certain candidate.

Current debates underappreciate the extent to which election-hacking is about conflict over attention rather than information. Leading scholars of state propaganda have noted that states are increasingly focusing on amplification of government opinion rather than censoring specific information. Our limited ability to consume information is key to these strategies; consequently, political theory needs to incorporate the ethics of attention.

Global Politics of Attention

This suggests a startling new reality: just as states traditionally competed for resources like territory or oil, they now seem to be competing for attention. This does not need to apply only to election interference or wartime propaganda; for example, worries that French citizens are paying inadequate attention to French culture drive France’s protectionist policies against the dominance of American cultural exports.

Of course, this is not as new as it might seem. States have attempted to intrude into each other’s information spaces since (at least) 1807, when a British admiral released anti-Napoleon leaflets carried by the strings of kites along the coast of France. One study found that the United States and the USSR/Russia intervened in 117 elections around the world from 1946 to 2000, “an average of once in every nine competitive elections.”

However, rapid developments in information and communication have made the question of interference much more urgent. The internet has opened new opportunities for informational attacks both on minds and machines, creating a variety of thorny dilemmas.  For example, if we accept that a certain amount of collective attention is crucial to a state’s capacity to govern itself, actions which hijack collective attention – particularly during critical moments of vulnerability such as elections – might disrupt this capacity so severely that they violate state sovereignty. In that case, surely states have a certain right to their citizens’ attention, which means they are justified in protecting this attention from external intrusion?

Such arguments start to sound very similar to the authoritarian doctrine of ‘internet sovereignty,’ which is perhaps best expressed by the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), an international organization of which Russia and China are members. In its attempt to redefine cyberwarfare, the SCO has said that the dissemination of information “harmful to the spiritual, moral and cultural spheres of other states” should be considered a “security threat.” China justifies information control with the language of sovereignty, and Russia used similar arguments when it banned foreign NGOs on the grounds that they might spread ideas which undermine the state. Democratic states, and the US under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in particular, have long opposed this doctrine on the grounds of free speech and “freedom-to-connect.”

This puts Western democratic states which have recently felt vulnerable to election interference in a tricky and somewhat ironic position. Many Westerners may now see the appeal of understanding information and attention space as crucial to sovereignty; however, the “right to attention” argument seems largely indistinguishable from “internet sovereignty.” It seems a proponent of the importance of collective attention must concede that states are legitimate in protecting their citizens’ attention from outside interference.

There is some truth to this argument: Western democratic states were perhaps over-confident that their open systems would give them a natural advantage in “information age” geopolitics. The members of the SCO may have been more far-sighted in identifying citizens’ attention space as crucial to state’s capacity to govern. However, this “right to attention” makes a subtly different claim to my framework of collective attention.

Collective attention arises from the right to self-determination, i.e. a political community’s right to determine its political arrangements. The crucial distinction is that the rights holder is the electorate, and not the state. States – both democratic and non-democratic - may have an interest in their citizens’ attention, but this interest does not establish a right to assert control over this attention.

Ohlin makes a similar point in distinguishing sovereignty and self-determination; however, he doesn’t clarify what kind of interference violates self-determination. This is precisely why the concept of collective attention is useful. Putin publicly endorsing Trump might attract attention, but this adds to the deliberative process rather than trying to destroy it. However, the strategies of election-hacking are also all strategies of attention-hacking. Just as a loud noise or pop up ad does not necessarily violate an individual’s freedom of attention, intrusions into collective attention are problematic when they systematically harm the electorate’s capacity to focus on deliberation. Foreign advertisements and radio programs should be evaluated – among other things – by the extent to which they use outrage and scandal methodically to capture attention.

The link between elections and collective attention is therefore crucial. However, it is also problematic, as it might imply only intrusions into “genuinely democratic” attention spaces violate self-determination while interference into “dictatorships and other illiberal systems” does not. In fact, this is precisely what Ohlin argues: “this is a core difference between the sovereignty and self-determination frameworks; the concept of sovereignty leaves little room for discriminating between political arrangements.”  However, this “discrimination” could easily be interpreted as a hypocritical justification for Western meddling. It seems plausible that states which are not considered “genuine democracies” by the United States might nonetheless express their citizens’ right to determine their own political arrangements. What kind of attention rights do these states have?

This also leaves open the question of whether states have a right to control their citizens’ attention. One might argue the right to self-determination is meaningless if states do not have the corresponding right to defend against intrusions into collective attention. However, efforts by the state to block information or control its citizens’ attention are irreconcilable with liberal values. These questions both exceedingly important and difficult to answer. I do not pretend that I have the solutions; however, the notion of collective attention provides an important first step. As states develop ever more effective methods to meddle with each other’s attention spaces, those seeking to develop norms for international politics will need to incorporate the ethics of attention. Understanding collective attention as an extension of self-determination clarifies the relevant rights-holder is the political community, rather than its government. This allows us to identify the harm of election-hacking without necessarily conceding that states must control their citizens’ attention to protect their sovereignty.