top of page

Electoral Targeting: Lessons Learned from Digital Campaign Trails in Southeast Asia

Various pessimistic predictions have been made regarding the future of democracies in Southeast Asia as a result of the diverse governments and political regimes with transitioning democratic system issues. The experience of liberation struggles in Indonesia, Vietnam, and Laos, the abuse of constitutions by authoritarian governments in the Philippines, and the development of international legal standards and doctrines shaped their constitutional designs.

While electoral integrity is frequently emphasised, the significance of election security preparedness in the region and the accompanying risks are not being addressed effectively because of existing challenges. Election security preparedness entails implementing measures to protect the electoral process and safeguard it from interference, hybrid threats, or other types of coordinated attacks in order to preserve its integrity and credibility. Finland is an example of a country that is actively working on implementing measures for election security preparedness.

Common approaches to managing election security include validating and verifying voters, protecting ballots, and securely transmitting election results. However, these measures frequently prioritise safeguarding the voting infrastructure over addressing potential political vulnerabilities. Political vulnerabilities in the context of election security refer to potential weaknesses or vulnerabilities in the electoral process that could be exploited to interfere with or undermine the integrity of the election. These vulnerabilities may be related to the technology used in the electoral process, the rules and regulations governing the election, or the political environment in which the election takes place. The popularly accepted belief is that democratic nations hold elections to determine who will lead the government and make significant decisions.

However, the often underappreciated nuance is that in the case of Southeast Asia, elections usually come after a process of democratisation has already begun. In other words, the election itself is not what causes democracy to happen; rather, it is the end result or culmination of other processes and events that precede it. Arguably, flawed elections are essential to the maintenance of authoritarian government because it is through elections that authoritarian regimes are able to collect information, pursue legitimacy, manage political elites, and preserve neo-patrimonial dominance, all of which enable them to sustain their rule over the people.

Some specific examples of political vulnerabilities in the region may include:

1) lack of transparency and accountability in the electoral process, which can lead to suspicions of fraud or manipulation; and 

2) political polarisation or instability that can create an environment conducive to election-related violence or post-election coup d’état, or 

3) intimidation and manipulations such as the strategic use of conspiracy theories and hate speech. Electoral politics in Southeast Asia can be a complex and multifaceted affair with a history of political ritualism, democratic competition, electoral anomalies and abuse; some may qualify as free and fair but not necessarily clean, while others may be free but not fair. 

The relationship between elections and democracy in the region is likely to vary from country to country and can be influenced by a range of social, economic, and political factors, such as:

1. The strength of civil society organisations (CSOs): Strong CSOs can help promote transparency and accountability in the electoral process and advocate for democratic rights. They can also mobilise voters and serve as a check on the actions of governments and other powerful political players. On the other hand, weak or suppressed CSOs may be unable to fulfil these roles, leading to less democratic and transparent elections.

2. Voter intimidation or coercion: Some individuals or groups may try to intimidate or coerce voters into supporting a particular candidate or political party, either through threats or incentives, or purging of voter rolls or the use of other tactics to prevent certain groups of people from voting.

3. Fraud or vote-rigging: There have been instances of fraudulent voting or vote-rigging in some elections in Southeast Asia, such as malapportionment and gerrymandering.

4. Disinformation or propaganda: The spread of false or misleading information, particularly through social media, can create confusion and sway public opinion in favour of certain candidates or parties.

5. Campaign finance irregularities: Elections can also be vulnerable to campaign finance violations, such as the use of illegal or undeclared funds to finance campaigns and digital astroturfing.

6. Inadequate election administration: Poorly administered elections, such as those with inadequate voter education or inadequate safeguards against fraud, can also contribute to election vulnerabilities.

7. Social media manipulation: Social media can play a significant role in shaping public opinion and influencing the outcome of elections.

Given that elections serve as a vital instrument for upholding democratic values and holding officials accountable to the people, they may be subject to a variety of manipulations and interferences. Voters must be able to differentiate between legitimate political campaigns and malicious electoral interference, but they may have difficulties doing so. For this reason, electoral regulations and content moderation are needed to support voter education efforts. During election seasons, there are two key vulnerable points in which sophisticated information operators would look for to exploit or leverage to achieve their goals, and that would be:

  • influencing voter turnout and

  • influencing voter choices.

Election interference refers to any attempt to influence or subvert the outcome of an election by illegal or illegitimate means. This can take many forms, including hacking into voting systems or tampering with ballots, spreading false or misleading information about candidates or the voting process, suppressing or bribing voters, or manipulating the media to sway public opinion. Election interference is a significant threat to the fairness and integrity of democratic elections. The rapidly changing and competitive nature of the cyberspace, where multiple actors compete to control information and narratives, makes it difficult for regional policymakers to understand and effectively address election disinformation.

Election disinformation is defined as deliberate, organised dissemination of false or misleading information with the goal of influencing election outcomes. This can take many forms, including false or misleading news stories, provocative social media posts, or digital astroturfing to manipulate and create uncertainty among voters, and undermine trust in the electoral process by eroding the credibility of candidates or political parties.

Savvy political actors would hire influence operators, troll farms, or digital armies to spread campaign messaging and carry out malign influence campaigns against their opponents in an attempt to gain an advantage. These strategies may include using social media for counter-mobilisation (organising people against the opposition), discourse framing (shaping public discussion) in their favour, preference divulgence (gathering information about false preferences), and elite coordination (consolidating) with other elites.

In recent years, social media platforms have become a valuable tool for political campaigns because they enable political players to reach a large audience quickly and effectively. More specifically, social media manipulation has become an integral part of information wars and election rigging, and it poses the potential to undermine the integrity of elections and earn its instigators an electoral advantage.

Incumbent state actors and adversarial political players routinely leverage social media to extend their hold on power and limit opposition candidates by spreading disinformation, propaganda, and other malicious messaging that aims to interfere with and undermine the electoral process. In Malaysia and the Philippines, CSOs play an important role in observing elections by monitoring and detecting electoral fraud and subversion tactics such as disinformation, polarising messages, or hate speech.

Governments, civil society organisations (CSOs), and election officials must cooperate in reaffirming their commitment to democratic practices to safeguard their electoral process and guarantee that the elections are free, fair, and clean. It is crucial to realise that erosion of trust is the primary cause of people's susceptibility to disinformation, and that the public need to be better educated in order to be more informed. CSOs must be granted more autonomy in order to enhance political education and increase media literacy, critical thinking, and fact-checking among the general public. 

This can be accomplished by allowing CSOs to establish independent oversight bodies and granting journalists and the media the freedom to observe and cover the voting process. Additionally, policymakers must maintain a close working relationship with social media platforms and tech companies to ensure they adhere to their content moderation policies and ensure, and that false or misleading posts are removed from their platforms as quickly as possible to limit public exposure and prevent harm.



bottom of page