Leona O'Neill

Leona O'Neill has been a journalist in Northern Ireland for over 20 years working with, among others, the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Daily Mirror and the Irish News. She is also a news reporter on Q Radio, a weekly columnist with the Irish News and a commentator for the BBC. She is a mother of four children - two of them teenagers - and as such is also a full-time professional worrier.

I’m sure everyone is as sick of elections as I am at this stage. We’ve just emerged from reporting on a fiercely fought local election and have the European Parliament Elections just around the corner. And with Brexit chaos ensuing it looks likely that we will also have a Westminster election thrown in the mix just to add to our election fatigue.

I recently spent two days and two nights in a sweaty leisure centre shaped prison watching fellow journalists and politicians go slowly mad. Think of the seventh circle of Hell, add luke warm tea, soggy sandwiches, politicians weeping, surviving solely on a diet of vending machine crisps for two days and journalists complaining about the bad wifi to the recipe and you’ll get some idea of what covering them as a reporter looks and feels like.

Despite all of this, I find elections fascinating, truth be told. Once I have a few days head space away from the count centre I will find myself succumbing to election fever again at the end of May and embracing the madness it brings.

With the rise of social media popularity, elections have certainly become even more interesting. One only has to log on to Twitter and seek out the US President’s platform to attest to that.

And here in Northern Ireland the run up to any election is fraught with social media spats between rival parties. Whereas good old fashioned political bantering was reserved only within the realms the government chamber, social media has become an online political battlefield.

Candidates use the online platforms to get right there into the voter’s living rooms, posting photos of themselves pointing at potholes, claiming credit for things, criticising their rivals or just telling everyone what a fantastic reception they are getting ‘on the doors’.

But it’s not just the voters who have their eye on the cyber world at election time. Malicious elements utilise online platforms to hack voters, hack votes and cause disruption and chaos.

It would be hard to imagine the Russians having any desire to influence who will be the next councillor for the Lettershandoney district, but elevate this to the Westminster elections or the US Presidential race and there might be a sliver of interest in swaying voters.

Manipulating voters essentially means influencing how they will vote. Investigations after the US Presidential election of 2016 shows pretty definitely that Russian agents may have attempted this very thing.

A report, carried out in the US by the FBI, NSA and CIA in the wake of that election stated that ‘Moscow’s influence campaign followed a Russian messaging strategy that blends covert intelligence operations—such as cyber activity—with overt efforts by Russian government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media users or ‘trolls’.’

Russians apparently bought online advertising promoting divisive content and misinformation which reached 126 million users and helped to sow political and social discord.

And before the May 2015 British general elections, security experts reported a dramatic increase in clandestine online activity by the Russians across the UK. And there has been persistent reports of Kremlin interference and cyber attacks in the run up to elections in Holland, France and Germany. There are, of course, allegations that the Kremlin would vehemently deny.

We might well complain here in Northern Ireland about how long our old school methods of voting take. We use a simple pencil mark on a ballot paper and a raft of election officials to count them manually. However in America an electronic voting system is used, which is, of course, vulnerable to hackers.

And not even the politician’s emails are safe. In the States, email accounts for Republican party campaigners were hacked into a month before the Presidential elections, in which we all now know Donald Trump triumphed. Hackers surveyed the correspondents of top aides, presumably for information that could be pumped out to the public domain and used to scupper the chances of certain people winning.

Politics is a dirty business, we all know that, and there are none more dirty than those who reside in the deepest and darkest crevices of the internet. With several big elections happening here in the future, and the next US Presidential race already growing in momentum in America, expect much more of the same.

Cyber security experts are working around the clock to stay one step ahead of the hackers. Unfortunately they are a fact of life when conducting elections in the digital era.