The risks of digital democracies

Digital democracies, understood not only as those that are digitizing the voting process, but also as those in which citizens have extensive access to the Internet, run the double risk of being attacked both during the holding of the elections themselves, through cyberattacks, such as through disinformation campaigns. Given that digitization -at least in some aspects- does not seem reversible, protection measures will have to be established to prevent a repetition of what happened in electoral campaigns such as the 2016 US election or the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament.

Virtually all electoral systems in democratic countries predate the Internet and social networks, so obviously they were not originally designed to prevent possible external interference. 

Until only a decade ago, it was unthinkable that a State could deploy an influence operation on the electorate of a third state with the aim of disrupting its electoral elections. 

However, in recent years, it is not uncommon to observe how the intelligence agencies of democratic states have been warning about the existence of attempts at electoral manipulation in the months following the elections by foreign states with the aim of placing like-minded governments in the power. And, in fact, the existence of this risk for digital democracies has been reflected year after year in the reports on digital freedom that the organization Freedom House publishes annually.

Although the United States and Estonia are the main states that have suffered verifiable attacks of this type, there are dozens of examples: the US presidential elections in 2016, the Dutch general elections in 2017, the May 2019 elections to the European Parliament, or the Italian elections of 2018[1]; These are just some of the events that allow us to increase speculation about the digital fragility of electoral systems (Arteaga, 2018).  

However, despite the existence verified by the information services of campaigns aimed at influencing the electorate of democratic countries, the truth is that, ultimately, it is not possible to quantify (especially in the case of disinformation operations) the The ability of these attacks to prevent citizens from going to the polls or altering their results (NIC, 2020). 

In this article we will try to observe to what extent the digitization of elections in democratic countries can be a problem that is difficult to solve, or if, on the contrary, this risk is being overestimated. 

The informative war –where the disinformation operations would be framed– and purely offensive cyber-attacks are the main attack vectors on the electoral systems of Western democracies.  

So far, only Estonia and Switzerland have seriously considered the transition to a digital vote without physical support.[2], since, in general terms, in the vast majority of democratic states the process of digitizing the vote has been limited solely to the application of the necessary formulas to accelerate the progress of the electoral results, but not of the voting processes and accounting –which are still governed in their vast majority by analog procedures (Ramos, 2019).

In this sense, except in the two states mentioned –whose aspiration to the complete digitization of the electoral process would make them seriously vulnerable to cyber-attacks for collecting census data on the one hand, and for altering electoral results on the other– in the rest of the states democratic power “ Hacked ” elections using only computerized means seems practically impossible. 

However, the fact that the final results cannot be altered electronically, as there is a physical support for contrast, does not mean that the process is immune to the risks of cyberspace and that the credibility of the electoral process cannot be affected in some way. 

Thus, if, hypothetically, by means of a cyberattack on the companies in charge of the computerized management of the electoral advances, it were possible to publish some initial electoral results, in which a political party was declared the winner of the elections, and later, the manual recount yielded a completely different result granting victory to the opposition party would undoubtedly generate a situation of chaos and distrust towards the electoral process, both on the part of the civilian population, as well as of the representatives and political parties.  

In this sense, any interference in the electoral process, even if only by modifying provisional results, would have a chaotic impact on the subsequent credibility of the results obtained. 

Similarly, the digital platforms of political parties do not seem to be “untouchable” (vulnerable to countless attack vectors that could seriously hinder the management of electoral campaigns) nor the electoral candidates themselves (such as the scandal of leaked emails of Hilary Clinton already demonstrated).

However, despite the existence of these threats and the risks they entail, the truth is that, in the current technological and legal context, the main of these risks lies in the very minds of the citizens of democratic states.

One of the main theses of electoral theory is that elections are not won, but lost when the electorate cannot be mobilized. And, it is clear that the  feelings and emotions of voters are more easily manipulated than the software  of companies dedicated to the management of elections [3] .  

The public opinion of a State is formed by the individual ideas of its citizens, which are directly linked to the way in which individuals access information about the electoral candidates, about the electoral campaign and about the political climate. usually. Or, put another way, if false information is externally provided about any of these conditions, it could – to a greater or lesser extent – ​​alter the opinion of the voter regarding the direction of her vote.

This is possible because there are two powerful circumstances. In the first place, because – far from what is usually thought, and as the prospective theory of Kahneman and Tversky demonstrates – human beings are not rational beings capable of adopting the best possible decision considering all the possible aspects of a question of equitably based on a careful evaluation of the available information. Intuition, lack of information, and the existence of cognitive biases and prior beliefs disprove the rationalism of human decisions (Kahneman, 2015). And, secondly, because there are external agents (media, politicians, states, etc.) that influence individual thinking in order to establish their own agenda favorable to their interests.      

In addition, this public opinion is mostly informed through digital media and consequently suffers from their own problems:

  • Some traditional media that have palpably relaxed their information contrast standards in order to gain visibility and increase the monetization of their portals, and that resort without hesitation to   clickbait  and misleading headlines;
  • The appearance of new information constantly and a vertiginous news cycle that prevents the deepening and internalization of knowledge;
  • The emergence of unknown media of dubious origin; infoxication
  • The existence of biased stories (fake news  or fake news ) issued by national or foreign actors with the aim of changing the reader’s thinking thanks to the fact that the immediate emotional reaction displaces any subsequent rational thought and;
  • The existence of some “sounding boards” (social networks) that feed back one’s own thinking and drown out any hint of self-criticism or rethinking [4] . 

In short, we find ourselves with a harsh reality: the voter’s thinking is profoundly permeable to exogenous factors that can be maliciously controlled by hostile third states. 

Especially when disinformation operations are aimed at dynamiting a series of social, cultural, racial or religious cleavages that profoundly stress public debate and generate general discomfort in society; Standing out as examples of these tactics are the Russian campaigns of disinformation and support for independence causes in Europe, the media support by Russian media for the  Black Lives Matter  in United States movement, or more recently the entire information warfare campaign deployed around the war conflict in Ukraine .

The objective of this type of campaign is clear, to use situations of internal confrontation or electoral processes to weaken the credibility of democracies and thus satisfy certain geopolitical, geoeconomic or ideological interests (Arteaga, 2018). Because in the face of disinformation, the evidence presented to the voter does not matter, once the false information has been consumed, they will internalize it by affecting their emotions, the image they have of themselves and their identity as a person and as a citizen. (Nogueras, 2020). 

This phenomenon is not new, propaganda as a weapon of political influence has been used for centuries, however, currently the process has intensified due, on the one hand, to social networks and the Internet that cause a phenomenon to be amplified. constant over time (Duffy, 2018), and on the other, to the attack vector in which these platforms become for the states in a context of competition between states.

In fact, evidence of the complexity and reality of this issue can be seen from a strategic point of view in the fact that European democratic governments have begun to adopt censorship measures against the propaganda issued by “disinformation instruments”. of an enemy state: Russia – with the consequences that this entails when confronting with one the fundamental rights of democracies, freedom of expression.

Conclusions: Digital democracies are only at relative risk

Based on what has been exposed throughout this Focus, we can conclude by affirming that, although it is currently not possible to “hack ” [5] an election since the process of digitizing the vote is not a widespread phenomenon in the main democracies of the world, the truth is that there are methods to condition voters by attacking their cognitive level: by issuing false information that conditions them to vote before the elections; or by attacking the companies responsible for advancing the electoral results and thus raising suspicions about the electoral process as a whole.

In other words, it can be affirmed that a hostile state can influence the elections of a democratic state –confirming this fact the risks that cyberspace harbors for democracies– but at the same time it is practically impossible to quantify the degree of conditioning that this will be. able to exert on the sense of the vote of the electors.


  • Duffy, B. (2018). The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything. Londres: Atlantic Books.
  • Kahnema, D. (2015). Think fast, think slow. Barcelona: Pocket.
  • Nogueras, R. (2020). Why do we believe in shit? How we deceive ourselves. Kailas Publisher.


[1]  On Sunday, September 25, 2022, Italians will go to the polls again under the threat of foreign interference in their electoral system.

[2]  A debate not exempt from controversy and starring a serious contrast of ideas regarding the vulnerabilities that Internet voting presents, since Estonia has already suffered a Russian attack of these characteristics and in Switzerland there are reports that revealed “back doors” that allowed the  undetectable manipulation of the votes cast electronically  in the online voting system that was planned to be implemented. 

[3]  The weakest link is always the one that depends on the human factor.

[4]  Ultimately, three factors are added: the enormous amount of information, the lack of time to contrast or confirm it and the lack of interest in doing this reasoning exercise, because why are we going to do it if we are completely convinced of the certainty of our beliefs (Nogueras, 2020).

[5]  understanding the concept  Hacked  as the fraudulent alteration of the final result through digital means.


Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.