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Misinformation and elections: what is at stake?

Author: Adrià Rodríguez-Pérez, Public Policy Researcher at Scytl

One month ahead of the elections to the European Parliament: are the EU and its member States able to ensure an informed pre-election campaign and ready to prevent the challenges of misinformation and propaganda on social media? 

Electoral processes entail more than just casting a vote. Media, including social media, play an instrumental role in elections. There can be no free and fair elections when voters are misled about registration and/or voting procedures, when candidates are not given a space to communicate their messages or when voters cannot receive diverse information.  

Yet, Samantha Bradshaw and Philip P. Howard provide mounting evidence that social media are being used to manipulate and deceive electoral processes. In a recent report, they have identified foreign computational propaganda operations targeting 48 Western and emerging democracies during recent elections.  

elections must be conducted fairly and freely on a periodic basis within a framework of laws guaranteeing the effective exercise of voting rights. Persons entitled to vote must be free to vote for any candidate for election and for or against any proposal submitted to referendum or plebiscite, and free to support or to oppose the government, without undue influence or coercion of any kind which may distort or inhibit the free expression of the elector’s will. Voters should be able to form opinions independently, free of violence or threat of violence, compulsion, inducement or manipulative interference of any kind. 

United Nations Human Rights CommitteeGeneral Comment No. 25, para. 19

In this context, it should not come as a surprise if stakeholders are concerned that the upcoming elections to the European Parliament may be marred with misinformation. According to a recent Eurobarometer, almost three quarters (73%) of Internet users are concerned about disinformation or misinformation online during the pre-election period, and 30% are “very concerned”. 59% of respondents were also worried about foreign actors and criminal groups influencing elections covertly. More recently, some national agencies and even the EU institutions themselves have warned about potential misinformation spread on social media targeting the upcoming elections to the European Parliament.  

There are several instances in which misinformation on social media could compromise the results of these elections. Considering the role played by media in any electoral process, three kinds of challenges can be envisaged. 

 

First, the media play a central and influential role in providing candidates and parties with a stage to engage voters during an election period.

Ahead of any election, media is one of the channels by means of which voters can form an opinion, a crucial part of fair elections. In this sense, false information can be spread to discredit political actors or to alter the perceptions about how much support a certain candidate or option has (so-called “astroturfing”, by means of botstrolls or even “cyborg” accounts). The former is the most common instance of election interference experienced so far, with recent examples in FranceGermany and Sweden. In turn, Researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute have identified cases of astroturfing in Brazil, Ecuador, Israel and Serbia.   

False information can also be used to divert conversations or criticism away from important issues (e.g., fact-checking information) or to polarise an election campaign. Lisa Maria Neudert and Nahema Marchal define polarisation as the political, social and ideological division of societies into distinctly opposed groups. Polarisation may be the consequence of the changes in our information infrastructures (i.e., echo chambers) as well as of the social media platforms’ design choices and incentives (i.e., filter bubbles). According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, during the 2016 Brexit Campaign in the United Kingdom, campaigners on both sides of the debate used so-called “dark ads” to target voters with conflicting information. Dark ads are pieces of advertising that are displayed only to certain user groups. Since they are inaccessible to others, they help spread inaccurate information because no-one can scrutinise them.  

 

Second, media is also one of the vehicles for a whole range of information about the election process itself, including preparations, voting and the results, as well as voter education.

There is evidence that media has been used in the past to mislead voters and disenfranchise them. For example, during the 2016 Presidential Elections in the United States, Facebook and YouTube were used to suppress the votes from African Americans by persuading them to boycott the elections. Another example comes from Meyer-Resende: a false story about violence which deters voters from going to polling stations.  

 

Third, misinformation on social media can overshadow the performance of the election administration.

While the proper accountability of Election Management Bodies’ decisions is of paramount importance for the conduct of democratic elections, social media may be abused to spread false information on how elections have been conducted, raise suspicion and delegitimise its results. Eroding trust in the election process has been identified as one of the main tactics behind elections interference. In some cases, it has resulted in the need to rerun entire electionsConsidering that misinformation in social media spreads up to six times faster than accurate information, this kind of risk should not be underestimated.  

The illusion of a compromised electoral system alone can cause severe damage to public trust and is worsened by (domestic) stakeholders wanting to take advantage of it. 

Dr. Sven Heprig and Julia SchuetzeSecuring Democracy in Cyberspace, p. 16  

In previous posts, Co-Inform Researchers have already discussed how both the European Union and social media platforms aim at addressing the challenge of false information. In addition, several national initiatives also exist, and some of them are specifically targeting misinformation during the pre-election period.  

In this context, however, special attention will need to be paid to these measures not jeopardising freedom of expression, a cornerstone in any democratic election, as well as voters’ fundamental right to privacy. It is important to remember that, once trust in the process is lost, it will be difficult to regain 

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Co-inform project is co-funded by Horizon 2020 – the Framework Programme for Research and Innovation (2014-2020)
H2020-SC6-CO-CREATION-2016-2017 (CO-CREATION FOR GROWTH AND INCLUSION)
Type of action: RIA (Research and Innovation action)
Proposal number: 770302

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