Poland’s ruling party has eroded the country’s democracy for almost a decade. The OSCE should send a full-scale election observation to monitor challenges on election day this fall and signal its commitment to fighting the increasing threat of autocracy, Research Assistant Krystyna Sikora writes in EU Observer.
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The Securing Democracy Dispatch continues with its Q&A series this week. Today, we sat down with David Salvo, managing director here at ASD, to discuss authoritarian interference in democracies.
What first made you realize you wanted to focus your work on safeguarding democracy?
My interest in democracy issues was first shaped during my time at the US State Department. I had overseas assignments in Russia and in the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In both posts, I saw firsthand how authoritarian governments kept a stranglehold on power through corruption, manipulation of information, control over the media, and relentless attacks on political opposition and civil society. I hadn’t put two and two together at that point, but regimes in both places were using pretty much the exact same autocratic toolkit as ASD first defined it six years ago. Witnessing governments use that toolkit against their own citizens made it very easy for me to accept the fact that they would use it and were using it to undermine democracy abroad too. So, when I left the State Department, joining a nascent ASD felt like a perfect fit.
As one of ASD’s managing directors, you oversee work related to authoritarian interference in democracies. Where do you think ASD can have the greatest impact heading up to the 2024 election?
There are two key ways I think we can have an impact in the run-up to the 2024 election. First, ASD has deep expertise on artificial intelligence and election administration. 2024 may be the first election where there’s a real confluence of these two issue sets. The advent of ChatGPT and other AI-generated media has the potential to be misused to mislead Americans about the integrity of the election, for example. That’s a potentially dangerous element to add to an already fraught environment where distrust in how elections are conducted is still high. We’ve got exciting plans to try to work with multiple stakeholders in our democracy to build better resilience against this type of misuse while also using democracy-affirming AI technologies to ensure citizens have access to verifiable information.
Second, ASD has a ton of open-source data through various online tools we’ve developed. Those tools give us a real window into how malign actors shape the information environment—either through outright mis- and disinformation or through narratives they are injecting into the public debate. What we can see is how these actors—often foreign state-sponsored actors, but sometimes even for-profit entities trying to maximize ad revenue by getting more traffic to their websites—target local communities across the United States, a tactic Russian state-sponsored actors used in 2016, by the way. ASD is working to partner with other civil society organizations with deep ties to specific communities and provide them with data and analysis showing how they’re being targeted. The goal here is not to censor or de-platform or tell anyone how to vote, but to give them a sense of how foreign state actors, in particular, are potentially trying to mislead them or manipulate the information they consume ahead of stepping into the ballot box. That way, citizens are better able to recognize those tools and tactics.
What do you see as the biggest threat to democracy in the transatlantic community right now?
Established democracies are using the authoritarian playbook in ways that really impact the health of democratic institutions. In certain countries, you may see the veneer of democracy, but you peel back a layer and realize it’s essentially a democracy in name only. Governments can do any number of things—chip away at the independence of the judiciary, concentrate power rather exclusively in the executive’s hands, offer contracts to friendly businesses and media outlets under the guise of an open and transparent system, create unfair playing fields in electoral campaigns that give heavy advantages to the ruling party or candidate—and can still claim they are democratic because voters go to the polls in free elections.
What is one trend or statistic that you are monitoring right now? (make this an answer from your field/issue set)
There was a poll last fall by the Associated Press and the NORC Center at the University of Chicago showing that only one in ten Americans thought democracy in the United States was working well. The discontent spanned party affiliation too—Democrats, Republicans, and Independents all had poor opinions of US democracy in large numbers. As has been trending since before the 2016 presidential election, grievances about the inability of US institutions to deliver results that improve citizens’ lives have transcended traditional party boundaries, upending politics in the country. I hope that general discontent doesn’t turn into general skepticism towards democracy as a form of governance more broadly. Or, I hope that politicians don’t try to capitalize on that discontent to change laws, policies, and procedures to such an extent that it undoes foundational aspects of US democracy.
What is one book you’re reading? And as ASD’s resident performing musician, what music are you listening to these days?
I get my fill of non-fiction at work, so I read fiction almost exclusively at home. Right now, I’m in the middle of Philip Roth’s “The Great American Novel”. Generally, I’m a fan of 20th century American fiction with a heavy northeast bent—Roth, Bellow, Irving, etc. As for music, the best band on the planet right now is the Australian rock band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. Get past their name and dive into their catalog—every album is in a stylistically different genre so there’s something for everyone.
“Those dissatisfied with election results cannot threaten public officials and election officials. This is an unambiguous and uncrossable line, and there need to be serious consequences.”
- US District Judge Dominic W. Lanza said on August 28 after delivering a prison sentence to a man who threatened election officials.