Election monitoring in austere contexts using ICTs

The following note was penned to the co-ordinator of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), who asked me to go into some detail around the information security, gathering, archival and dissemination strategies I conceptualised and deployed around the historic Presidential Eleection in Sri Lanka, held on 8th January 2015.

CMEV’s information operations are a template for the monitoring of election violence similar austere circumstances, where the independent monitoring agencies, monitors and activists are at risk of violent pushback before, on the day of and after the elections.

Also read An election monitoring SMS template, from some years ago, where I designed a template through which election monitors could report violence in a structured manner to HQ over basic SMS.

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CMEV’s operations during the lead up to the Presidential Election on 8th January 2015 included the first time use of mobile technologies as well as, anchored to usual practice, the use of web and social media apps, platforms and tools to monitor, record and disseminate election related violence. 

The context of CMEV operations leading up to election day was one of heightened anxiety, both around the violence in the lead up to the election and the overarching pervasive architecture of surveillance, coupled with the high risk of violent pushback if Mahinda Rajapaksa, the then incumbent, was re-elected against those he and his Govt perceived as somehow in opposition, or supporting Maithripala Sirisena, the leading opposition candidate. Whereas CMEV operations are geared to face physical threats and harm, the context of the Presidential Election, given the known capabilities of the State, also raised fears over disruptive operations in cyberspace, aimed at CMEV’s information gathering and dissemination. 

This led to an unprecedented level of planning around the information security (infosec) and information dissemination capabilities and capacities of CMEV. CMEV used Google Maps to record violence leading up to election day, and incidents of violence on election day. CMEV is the only election violence monitoring body in Sri Lanka that uses web based mapping to highlight key incidents. 

The domain CMEV.org was registered (moving away from the domain associated with WordPress.com), making it easier to access the main website of CMEV. A complete website revamp was anchored to making the entire site responsive (enabling the viewing of content over any smartphone or tablet) and making it easier to get to key content in Sinhala, Tamil and English. The backend continued to be WordPress and with the domain registration, added security (in the form of two step authentication) was enabled, in order to prevent unauthorised access as well as attempts to hack into the site and disrupt CMEV operations. 

Mailchimp.org was used to send out emails including situation reports, eye-witness accounts, vital background information and conduct voter awareness campaigns. 

The cross-platform secure messaging app and service Telegram was recommended for use within CMEV HQ and field staff as a secure means of communicating information. For the first time  a secure means through which to communicate with CMEV was also opened to anyone from the general public, in order to encourage whistleblowing around election irregularities, malpractices and violence. 

Also for the first time, CMEV used WhatsApp over a dedicated smartphone (and associated number) in order to push out vital updates in the form of text, audio and video. Around the 7th of January, there were two WhatsApp groups in operation, pushing out updates to around 350 individuals both in Sri Lanka and outside, from the media, diplomatic corps, civil society, academia and other sectors (to the extent that could be discerned from the numbers provided). The service was opt in, and widely publicised over social media and the web as a means of getting CMEV updates around the clock to one’s mobile. WhatsApp also leverage the fact that mobile phone penetration in the country is extremely high, with most phones sold today being smartphones.

In addition to the above, CMEV and Groundviews also launched an Instagram account, through which images around CMEV operations were pushed out. Instagram growth in Sri Lanka is skyrocketing, and was chosen as a platform to push visual updates from CMEV because of its wide reach within the country.

CMEV’s website featured dozens of updates in English, Tamil and Sinhala, including podcasts (recorded in the field as well as in the HQ over smartphones) and video. CMEV operations were also exhaustively covered over Twitter (via @CMEV), which currently features 674 followers. A number of tweets were retweeted over Groundviews (via @groundviews) and CPA’s institutional Twitter account (@CPASL), ensuring the widest possible reach for the most vital updates pushed out by CMEV. 

In addition to Twitter, CMEV was also on Facebook, which at the time of writing had over 2,000 fans. Facebook is the most used social media platform in the country, and the content featured on the site ensured that it reached a demographic that included first time voters, which was key.

CMEV also, in collaboration with Groundviews, featured and promoted the #IVotedSL social media campaign – an unprecedented attempt over social media, which went viral, to encourage voters to exercise their franchise. A range of compelling infographics (which also went viral across social media) was also produced by CPA and featured on CMEV’s website in order to raise voter awareness around the powers and functions of the Executive President. 

CMEV’s information operations on the backend was across three ISPs, ensuring that if it was blocked or barred from one ISP, we always had another channel to access the web and publish information. In preparation for election day, access to the key CMEV accounts (Twitter, Facebook and website) were also given to a trusted source based outside of Sri Lanka, in order to keep information operations active to the extent possible in the event of a complete internet and web blackout from Sri Lanka, aimed at CMEV and other similar institutions. We also hardened security over key social media accounts by enabling two-step authentication, minimising the risk of unauthorised access and hacking attempts. Staff were provided with the latest smartphones running Android, and with WhatsApp and Telegram as the default mode of information exchange over SMS and voice calls. HQ operations were meticulously planned to run backups of critical data, with offsite data storage as well as cloud based operations all geared to ensure business continuity in the event of arson, internet blackout or worse. 

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