The Next Election Will Require a New Kind of Vigilance

We need to confront the possibility of violence in 2020. Here are some technologies that can help.

The 2020 race has now begun in earnest, with the Democrats having their first primary debates last month. Lurking in the background is something that once seemed inconceivable in modern-day America: the threat of election-related violence.

As the Southern Poverty Law Center said earlier this year in an annual report, there has been a rise in domestic terrorism, hate crimes, and street violence. It’s no surprise, then, that on June 26, Reddit—the fifth-most trafficked website in the U.S.—announced it was “quarantining” a popular message board with 750,000 followers because of active discussions involving violence against political figures.

Because most Americans have never experienced such turmoil, we take it for granted that our next election will be as peaceful as past ones. That’s understandable, but it’s potentially a miscalculation we cannot afford to make. As recent trends have shown, there’s reason to believe this time could be different.

For the better part of three decades, I have worked with community activists, journalists, governments, and peacebuilders in more than 20 international conflicts to prevent electoral violence. And now, in my own country, I’m seeing the same red flags in other parts of the world, like Iraq and Bosnia, that have typically been precursors to violence, especially around emotional and hard-fought elections.

Perhaps the biggest harbinger of election violence is the proliferation of disinformation, rumors, and hate speech. All of which are spreading further and with greater velocity than at arguably any other moment in American history. A conspiracy theory that went viral in 2016 prompted a North Carolina man to shoot up a Washington restaurant where he thought there was child trafficking—an episode known as “Pizzagate.” (Similar activity on social media in India last year—false rumors of child abductions—also led to a series of violent attacks on innocent people.)

At one end of the political spectrum is the growth of armed white nationalists, who have already been responsible for deadly attacks over the last year. At the other is the emergence of anti-fascist, or “antifa,” groups committed to combating extremists with similar tactics. In both cases, digital platforms provided them the oxygen to grow—and grow quickly.

But our recent focus on holding social media companies accountable falls short. It is simply only one piece of the puzzle. Hate crimes in the U.S. are on the rise, political rallies have become bellwethers of violent assaults, and more students are dying in school shootings than military service members in war. Americans need to address the culture of violence that could very well flare up during a long and tumultuous presidential election.

We can start by drawing on valuable lessons from parts of the world that have experienced this before, and adopting the same technological innovations to fend off the kind of violence that can roil a nation.

Take Kenya, and its two highly disputed presidential elections. In 2007, after the polls closed, the opposition party was holding a significant lead that suddenly evaporated, and the incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner by a razor thin margin. President Kibaki moved to be swiftly sworn in for his second term, before there could be a recount. That set off two months of fighting and bloodshed, with ethnic clashes and excessive use of police force resulting in more than 1,000 deaths, incidents of gang rape and sexual violence recorded against 900 women and girls, and as many as 500,000 people displaced from their homes. The crisis subsided in 2008 with the formation of a power-sharing arrangement between the leaders of both rival parties. But throughout the ordeal, there were no guardrails in place to crack down on the violence.

When Kenyans went to the polls again in 2017, however, things were different despite the atmosphere being similarly contentious. Facing the 2007 presidential candidate, Raila Odinga, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta appeared to win following August voting, but a court annulled the result citing election irregularities. Claiming that corruption continued even after the court decision, Odinga withdrew in protest from the low-turnout do-over election, which Kenyatta won with 98 percent of the vote. While the outcome was still hotly disputed across Kenya, the death toll was 100—still tragic, but only a fraction of the killing that occurred 10 years earlier.

There were many reasons the second flare-up was less fatal than the first, including reforms that followed the previous election, such as the establishment of a reconciliation commission.

But there was also the emergence of a set of technologies aimed at building trust and defusing conflict.

One of these was an SMS/text-based early warning and response platform, Jihusishe na Amani. More than 200,000 users across several of Kenya’s most conflict-prone counties used the technology, through which they could report any irregularity they thought might lead to violence, from election fraud to intimidation.

Similarly, during Nigeria’s 2011 election, another tech tool known as Aggie—built by Professor Michael Best and a team of researchers at Georgia Tech—was used by grassroots youth election observers to detect violence in real-time by scanning social media, open source data, and incoming SMS reports. The combination of tech and human monitors proved more effective at identifying violent outbreaks than traditional media or law enforcement officials. During later elections in Liberia, Ghana, and Argentina, Aggie monitors worked out of Social Media Tracking Centers (SMTCs) and were embedded in polling stations, community centers, and law enforcement agencies to ensure direct lines of communication and rapid response.

Aggie and Jihusishe na Amani are two of the many instruments that are emerging out of an industry called “peacetech,” the name given to the tools and techniques that citizens can use for effective, grassroots conflict prevention. These innovations are made possible by unprecedented amounts of data for early warning, the ability to mobilize via digital networks, and new private sector resources invested in fragile and emerging countries. These gadgets are also being utilized in African refugee camps and throughout the Middle East, by organizations working on the front lines of violence.

At this moment, there are literally thousands of entrepreneurs and civil society groups designing solutions to reduce election violence. And they’re doing it with low-cost, easy-to-use technologies that many of us take for granted in our daily lives, like Google Forms, ArcGIS, WhatsApp, and YouTube. Yet even as these methods prove efficacious in gathering more accurate data about attacks against journalists in Iraq or expanding media literacy to spot inaccurate reports on social media in South Sudan, peacetech has barely been put to use in the U.S.

We should all hope it’s not necessary in 2020, but it’s better to increase our safety now than to realize later that there was more we could have done.

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Sheldon  Himelfarb

Sheldon Himelfarb is the President and CEO of PeaceTech Lab.