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Supporting Activism from Academia: Lessons from Ecuador’s 2017 Election

| By: Daniel Riofrio

This blog post is written by former ICFP Fellow Daniel Riofrio, reflecting on his experience working with civil society groups during Ecuador’s 2017 general elections, helping investigate disruptions to their networks and track social media-based bot networks. In addition to this summary, you can access the paper based off Riofrio’s study here (pdf): “Tracking Elections: our experience during the presidential elections in Ecuador”

In June 2015, I returned to my home country, Ecuador, after almost seven years of studying in the US. I encountered a changed country with a transformed political landscape. Then-President Rafael Correa had already been in office for more than two terms; soon, Correa would - for the first time in ten years - not be a viable candidate for reelection, bringing his run as Ecuador’s leader to an end after a total of ten years, from 2007 to 2017.

During the decade of Correa’s presidency, the political landscape in Ecuador changed radically. The population lost faith in traditional parties, placing their trust, support, and votes in new political movements. Correa’s movement, Alianza País, nearly controlled the country’s political system in its entirety. This radical shift in political power to a new group, for over ten years, has perhaps been the major criticism of Correa´s presidency to this point. Numerous corruption allegations also emerged in the last days of his presidency, with social pressure driven by many civil society groups demanding answers and solutions.

During 2015 and 2016, these corruption allegations flooded the Internet. Simultaneously, progressive civil society groups experienced (and denounced) digital attacks to their websites, Twitter accounts, and even to their privacy. Many Twitter accounts were blocked, allegedly due to copyright infringement related to public content (usually images in most cases) published by public state institutions on their websites, which were then replicated on activists’ accounts with links or comments related to their cause.

Designing the Study

In this context, I recognized that a study from an impartial party was needed, with the academic community well suited to develop such a study. This is how I discovered the Open Technology Fund and its mission to keep the Internet free and support those whose freedom of speech is being controlled, suppressed or eliminated online. With the help of the University of New Mexico and Professor Jed Crandall from the Computer Science Department, we started our study, focusing on how to support activists in the country and how to establish an impartial point of view from the academic perspective. To this end, we proposed several tasks and experiments to measure and track the 2017 presidential elections in Ecuador.

These elections were especially important because for the first time, in a decade, President Correa was no longer a viable candidate for reelection. In this context, several new candidates emerged, with eight candidates deemed eligible by the government institution in charge of elections. After the first round of elections, no candidate obtained the majority of ballots required to win, but in the second round of voting Alianza País candidate Lenín Moreno won the election. This victory was tainted by many allegations of electoral fraud, although no real evidence was provided by opposition parties.

One particular task we designed for tracking the elections consisted of providing direct technical support to activists and civil society groups experiencing DDoS attacks in exchange for anonymous data we could then use to study the specific types of DDoS attacks these civil society groups were facing. We obtained written support from four groups seeking technical assistance. Though we gained their initial support, effectively collaborating with our civil society counterparts was not easy and required more time and negotiation skills than we originally anticipated in order to ensure these partnerships were as mutually beneficial as possible.

Trust, Ethics, and Meaningful Partnerships

A key factor in ensuring effective partnerships with civil society groups was building trust - something that only happens over time and by sharing the same values and goals. At one point during our research, we contacted Masashi Crete-Nishihata from the Citizen Lab seeking advice on engaging with civil society groups, and he replied in an e-mail: “In our experience trust building with civil society groups is a slow and delicate process. Trust is transactional and what you build up can also be lost overnight if you’re not careful.” We found this to be true - not because we lost their support, but because we had trouble establishing the sort of good “transactional” relationship Masashi mentioned.

At the very beginning of our research, we pursued an institutional review board (IRB) approval in order to start collecting data without endangering any individuals in our research. Even though the IRB office replied that we were not collecting any information in our research that could harm anyone, we decided to go ahead and create an ethics addendum to our research proposal in order to maintain neutrality and to avoid placing people at risk. As part of these ethical considerations, we wrote that we were only going to provide summarized data, whether in our final reports or in partial results shared with civil society groups.

This particular point presented a challenge in forming a “transactional” relationship with civil society groups, because most civil society groups have an inherent political agenda; unlike academic pursuits like the one we were undertaking, they are not necessarily as concerned with maintaining objectivity in their activities and advocacy efforts. The civil society groups wanted to use our data to support their cause, but we could not guarantee that the findings would be to their liking. The results would need to speak for themselves, good or bad.

When we heard our civil society partners had reportedly suffered a DDoS attack, we attempted to work with them to ascertain what exactly was happening. But we could not get definitive answers in the form of concrete data for use in analysis. In fact, in one case, just after the first round of elections, many groups reported that their websites were disconnected from the Internet. Some of them called this event a DDoS, while others claimed that their servers were taken down by the government. In any event, these service disruptions seemed to suggest cases of interference being executed by the government in support of the state-backed candidate. But later we learned that the blackout was more likely related to a server failure from one webserver provider.

Despite these challenges, we were able to establish meaningful, effective partnerships. One civil society group in particular was incredibly supportive of our efforts along the way. They were both technically knowledgeable and politically motivated, which afforded us a larger, more natural window of opportunity to share data, collaborate, and advance mutual interests. Together, we deployed eight Raspberry Pis around Ecuador and tracked the availability of key websites and measured connectivity speeds. Ultimately, we did not see any website or Internet outage that could not be explained through normal website maintenance and ISP issues. With this civil society group, we participated in a local talk about the challenges Ecuador had for 2017, and we collaborated further to install OONI probes on the deployed Raspberry Pis, extending the OONI project’s in-country presence, enabling longer-term censorship monitoring in Ecuador in the future.

Academia’s Role in Fact-based Activism

In conclusion, supporting activism through academic studies is possible, but it requires clear understanding between the parties involved, realistic expectations around the notion of academic objectivity, and good negotiation skills to find a middle ground between the objective facts academic pursuits seek to find and the political agendas pursued by activists. It is also important to always obtain an IRB approval or at least create an ethics pamphlet to keep your research from harming others or yourself.

With this said, even if finding that middle ground between research and activism presents challenges, the data and analysis produced in academia can still be beneficial for civil society. You can’t control what facts you’ll find, but carrying out a well-designed and considered study is still important in order to gain further understanding of the ecosystem in question. In the case of Ecuador’s 2017 general elections, we found that effective collaboration was ultimately achieved despite the challenges we faced, with the insights gained shedding light on the technical challenges facing civil society - and the importance of continued support for their activities and the important work they seek to accomplish.

View the paper based off Riofrio’s study here (pdf): “Tracking Elections: our experience during the presidential elections in Ecuador”

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