Traditional vs. Crowdsourced Election Monitoring: Which Has More Impact?

Max Grömping makes a significant contribution to the theory and discourse of crowdsourced election monitoring in his excellent study: “Many Eyes of Any Kind? Comparing Traditional and Crowdsourced Monitoring and their Contribu-tion to Democracy” (PDF). This 25-page study is definitely a must-read for anyone interested in this topic. That said, Max paints a false argument when he writes: “It is believed that this new methodology almost magically improves the quality of elections [...].” Perhaps tellingly, he does not reveal who exactly believes in this false magic. Nor does he cite who subscribes to the view that  “[...] crowdsourced citizen reporting is expected to have significant added value for election observation—and by extension for democracy.”

My doctoral dissertation focused on the topic of crowdsourced election observa-tion in countries under repressive rule. At no point in my research or during interviews with activists did I come across this kind of superficial mindset or opinion. In fact, my comparative analysis of crowdsourced election observation showed that the impact of these initiatives was at best minimal vis-a-vis electoral accountability—particularly in the Sudan. That said, my conclusions do align with Max’s principle findings: “the added value of crowdsourcing lies mainly in the strengthening of civil society via a widened public sphere and the accumulation of social capital with less clear effects on vertical and horizontal accountability.”

This is huge! Traditional monitoring campaigns don’t strengthen civil society or the public sphere. Traditional monitoring teams are typically composed of inter-national observers and thus do not build social capital domestically. At times, traditional election monitoring programs may even lead to more violence, as this recent study revealed. But the point is not to polarize the debate. This is not an either/or argument but rather a both/and issue. Traditional and crowdsourced election observation efforts can absolutely complement each other precisely because they each have a different comparative advantage. Max concurs: “If the crowdsourced project is integrated with traditional monitoring from the very beginning and thus serves as an additional component within the established methodology of an Election Monitoring Organization, the effect on incentive structures of political parties and governments should be amplified. It would then include the best of both worlds: timeliness, visualization and wisdom of the crowd as well as a vetted methodology and legitimacy.”

Recall Jürgen Habermas and his treatise that “those who take on the tools of open expression become a public, and the presence of a synchronized public increasingly constrains un-democratic rulers while expanding the right of that public.” Why is this important? Because crowdsourced election observation projects can potentially bolster this public sphere and create local ownership. Furthermore, these efforts can help synchronize shared awareness, an important catalyzing factor of social movements, according to Habermas. Furthermore, my colleague Phil Howard has convincingly demonstrated that a large active online civil society is a key causal factor vis-a-vis political transitions towards more democratic rule. This is key because the use of crowdsourcing and crowd-mapping technologies often requires some technical training, which can expand the online civil society that Phil describes and render that society more active (as occurred in Egypt during the 2010 Parliamentary Elections—see  dissertation).

The problem? There is very little empirical research on crowdsourced election observation projects let alone assessments of their impact. Then again, these efforts at crowdsourcing are only a few years old and many do’ers in this space are still learning how to be more effective through trial and error. Incidentally, it is worth noting that there has also been very little empirical analysis on the impact of traditional monitoring efforts: “Further quantitative testing of the outlined mechanisms is definitely necessary to establish a convincing argument that election monitoring has positive effects on democracy.”

In the second half of his important study, Max does an excellent job articulating the advantages and disadvantages of crowdsourced election observation. For example, he observes that many crowdsourced initiatives appear to be spon-taneous rather than planned. Therein lies part of the problem. As demonstrated in my dissertation, spontaneous crowdsourced election observation projects are highly unlikely to strengthen civil society let alone build any kind of social capital. Furthermore, in order to solicit a maximum number of citizen-generated election reports, a considerable amount of upfront effort on election awareness raising and education needs to take place in addition to partnership outreach not to mention a highly effective media strategy.

All of this requires deliberate, calculated planning and preparation (key to an effective civil society), which explains why Egyptian activists were relatively more successful in their crowdsourced election observation efforts compared to their counterparts in the Sudan (see dissertation). This is why I’m particularly skeptical of Max’s language on the “spontaneous mechanism of protection against electoral fraud or other abuses.” That said, he does emphasize that “all this is of course contingent on citizens being informed about the project and also the project’s relevance in the eyes of the media.”

I don’t think that being informed is enough, however. An effective campaign not only seeks to inform but to catalyze behavior change, no small task. Still Max is right to point out that a crowdsourced election observation project can “encou-rage citizens to actively engage with this information, to either dispute it, confirm it, or at least register its existence.” To this end, recall that political change is a two-step process, with the second—social step—being where political opinions are formed (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955). “This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference” (Shirky 2010). In sum, Max argues that “the public sphere widens because this engagement, which takes place in the context of the local all over the country, is now taken to a wider audience by the means of mapping and real-time reporting.” And so, “even if crowdsourced reports are not acted upon, the very engagement of citizens in the endeavor to directly make their voices heard and hold their leaders accountable widens the public sphere considerably.”

Crowdsourcing efforts are fraught with important and very real challenges, as is already well known. Reliability of crowdsourced information, risk of hate speech spread via uncontrolled reports, limited evidence of impact, concerns over security and privacy of citizen reporters, etc. That said, it is important to note that this “field” is evolving and many in this space are actively looking for solutions to these challenges. During the 2010 Parliamentary Elections in Egypt, the U-Shahid project was able to verify over 90% of the crowdsourced reports. The “field” of information forensics is becoming more sophisticated and variants to crowdsourcing such as bounded crowdsourcing and crowdseeding are not only being proposed but actually implemented.

The concern over unconfirmed reports going viral has little to do with crowd-sourcing. Moreover, the vast majority of crowdsourced election observation initiatives I have studied moderate all content before publication. Concerns over security and privacy are issues not limited to crowdsourced election observation and speak to a broader challenge. There are already several key initiatives underway in the humanitarian and crisis mapping community to address these important challenges. And lest we forget, there are few empirical studies that demonstrate the impact of traditional monitoring efforts in the first place.

In conclusion, traditional monitors are sometimes barred from observing an election. In the past, there have been few to no alternatives to this predicament. Today, crowdsourced efforts are sure to swell up. Furthermore, in the event that traditional monitors conclude that an election was stolen, there’s little they can do to catalyze a local social movement to place pressure on the thieves. This is where crowdsourced election observation efforts could have an important contribution. To quote Max: “instead of being fearful of the ‘uncontrollable crowd’ and criticizing the drawbacks of crowdsourcing, [...] governments would be well-advised to embrace new social media. Citizens [...] will use new techno-logies and new channels for information-sharing anyway, whether endorsed by their governments or not. So, governments might as well engage with ICTs and crowdsourcing proactively.”

Big thanks to Max for this very valuable contribution to the discourse and to my colleague Tiago Peixoto for flagging this important study.

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