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Global Research Group delivers insights to Microsoft’s Defending Democracy Team

December 31, 2018

Bobby O'Brien of Microsoft introduces Global Research Group project
Microsoft Program Management Lead Bobby O'Brien speaks prior to the Global Research Group presentation at Microsoft HQ

On December 10, 2018, a Jackson School Global Research Group of students and faculty assembled near the Husky Union Building before driving to Microsoft HQ in Redmond. Their task: Provide members of Microsoft’s Defending Democracy Team within the Digital Diplomacy Program with an in-depth investigation and briefing on election security and the threats international actors pose to democracy across the globe.

This year the team was made up of seven undergraduate research fellows: Conor Cunningham, Connor Herriford, Elizabeth Mayer, Rishi Paramesh, Shannon Pierson, Sarah Sanguinet, and Binh Truong, and two senior research fellows, Grant Dailey (Jackson School M.A. and Evans School M.P.A. student), and Donghui Park (Jackson School Ph.D. student). Megan Zebert-Judd (Jackson School Ph.D. student) advised the team as the lead senior research fellow. Dr. Jessica Beyer, International Policy Institute senior fellow and lecturer at the Jackson School, led the project as faculty adviser for the eighth year in a row.

During the presentation, students discussed the threat and defensive landscape case studies of election security that focused on Australia, Canada, India, Mexico, Republic of Korea, South Africa, Taiwan and Ukraine. Focusing on election infrastructure attacks and voter manipulation campaigns, students found that every country had suffered from disinformation and misinformation campaigns. However, only some had experienced threats to election infrastructure, such as voter rolls or voting machines. In many of the cases, the most serious threats came from internal actors rather than other nation-states.

The students then turned to five major threat actors—China, India, Iran, North Korea and Russia—whose tactics, techniques and objectives students assessed. Across all cases, the two primary motivations for nation-states to interfere in another state’s elections are legitimacy (regime survival) and primacy (territorial influence or expansion). The researchers tied together motives with the history of each country’s attempt to undermine democracy and democratic elections. China, for example, works internationally to push nation-state control of the internet. Russia interferes in elections in pursuit of regional hegemony and to position itself as a leader in a multipolar world.

Drawing on a literature review of international election security recommendations and the lessons from their eight case studies, the researchers shared best practices and norms from around the globe that can help secure elections and build more resilient democracies. The team compared general recommendations against their country and threat actor analyses, making best practice recommendations for any election context, from Mexico to Australia.

The Global Research Group was conceived by Professor Sara Curran as a way to efficiently leverage Jackson School faculty expertise beyond academia, accelerate students’ advanced training, and demonstrate students’ career-relevant skills. The GRG teams are comprised of faculty experts, Ph.D. and Master’s students, and advanced undergraduates who conduct research and produce reports on pressing global issues for external clients from the public or private sectors. Students gain valuable experience doing directed and applied research, while clients receive expert insights on emerging issues that affect their operations. Read more about the GRG here.

This event and publication were made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.