Election Management Bodies can coordinate with civil society to enhance the reach of their messaging or extend their capacity to engage in time and labor-intensive activities such as fact-checking or social listening. The ability to forge these types of partnerships will vary significantly based on the credibility, independence, and capacity of both EMBs and CSOs in a given country.
EMB-CSO collaboration can be formalized to varying degrees. For example, in advance of the 2019 Indonesian elections, Bawaslu signed a Memorandum of Action (MoA) with fact-checking CSO Mafindo and election oversight CSO Perludem, outlining the parameters of their planned coordination to counter disinformation and online incitement. In South Africa, the coordination between CSO Media Monitoring Africa and the IEC in the development of their disinformation complaints referral and adjudication process included a close working relationship but was not formalized. Though partnerships should be reviewed regularly to ensure they are still serving their intended goals, collaborative relationships can also be long-standing as opposed to being re-invented every electoral cycle; Perludem has had a cooperative agreement in place with the KPU since 2015 to aid with voter information efforts, among other things.
Collaboration between EMBs and CSOs requires a careful balancing act to maintain the credibility and perceived independence of both entities. For CSOs, a visible relationship with an EMB can legitimize and raise the profile of the work that they are doing, but it can also open them up to accusations of partiality or abdication of their role as watchdogs of government institutions.
In the case of Media Monitoring Africa, which played a critical role in the development and delivery of the IEC’s disinformation complaints referral and adjudication process in South Africa, the involvement of the IEC in the effort gave the project visibility and credibility with donors and with the social media companies that were initially skeptical of the idea. This credibility in turn allowed MMA to raise sufficient funds to develop the project and provide their assistance to the IEC at no cost to the institution, which removed any financial relationship that could have called into question their impartiality. Prelude also has a policy to not receive money from EMBs, and the executive director, having formerly worked for Bawaslu, is careful to ensure that communication between her office and the election authorities is transparently conducted through formal channels.
At the same time, a visible relationship with an EMB can call into question the impartiality of a CSO. For example, Mafindo’s fact-checking work includes addressing disinformation about Bawaslu and the KPU, which has opened them up to criticism for too heavily relying on official rebuttals from those institutions rather than independent verification of the claims being investigated. Prelude reports that the media will come to them for clarification on some election-related stories because they provide more expeditious responses than official sources, which has opened them up to accusations that they serve as a public relations department for the KPU.
8.1 COALITION BUILDING
EMB coordination with CSOs can simultaneously serve several goals including consensus building about disinformation as a threat to elections, coordination, and amplification of rebuttals and counter-narratives as well as transparency and accountability.
As discussed in the section on Codes of Conduct and Codes of Ethics and the section on Disinformation Complaints Referral and Adjudication Processes, the act of consultation can create a foundation whereby an EMB begins to build a network of actors that can work together to combat electoral disinformation.
In 2019, Brazil's TSE launched its "Combatting Disinformation Program" focused on November 2020 elections. The program brought together approximately 60 organizations including fact-checking organizations, political parties, education and research institutions and social media platforms.
The program organized efforts around six themes: TSE internal organization; training and capacity building; containment of disinformation; identification and fact-checking of disinformation; revision of the legal and regulatory framework; and improvement of technological resources.
Bawaslu’s engagement with CSOs, universities, religious organizations, and youth groups to establish their Declaration of Principles and consult on the definitions of prohibited content in electoral campaigns provided a foundation for Bawaslu’s multi-stakeholder intervention strategies. The inclusion of religious leaders early, for example, meant a foundation for a relationship that could then help bolster the credibility of the EMB down the line, particularly in the context of the Hoax Crisis Centers. Building broad coalitions of this nature is also something that INE in Mexico did ahead of the 2018 elections, bringing together civil society representatives, media, academics, political leaders as well as social media company representatives for a conference to discuss countering the influence of disinformation. This initial conference was then followed by coordination meetings between civic tech groups, fact-checkers, and citizen election observer groups to collaborate on their efforts to combat disinformation in the elections. In August 2019, Brazil’s TSE launched its "Combatting Disinformation Program," which emphasized media literacy, after securing more than 40 institutional partners including media outlets, fact-checking agencies, and technology and social media company representatives.
The establishment of networks and coalitions can also help the EMB to amplify voter information messages and messages to counter misinformation or incitement. For example, part of the MoA outlining cooperation among Bawaslu, Marino, and Perludem included a joint information dissemination strategy to maximize each organization’s network for better outreach. Besides, Perludem undertook voter information efforts in cooperation with the KPU to promote understanding of each phase of the voting process and the role of the EMB – a proactive communication tactic that can make it more difficult for voters to be deceived by misinformation and disinformation about the electoral process. They also worked with both election management bodies to integrate website features that allowed the networking of information among the EMBs, their own work, and the work of journalists. As part of this effort, they worked with the KPU to develop an API that they could use to directly pull official data from the KPU to populate the Prelude website. They also allowed disinformation reports from the public to be channeled to Bawaslu by integrating the Perludem website with CekFacta – a journalist fact-checking network.
Coordination with CSOs can also help promote the accountability of Election Management Bodies. For example, Prelude, in addition to providing a portal through which individuals could report disinformation complaints to Bawaslu also monitored the progress of the reports that were submitted through their system for an added level of transparency about how reports were being handled.
8.2 FACT-CHECKING AND COMPLAINTS REFERRAL
An EMB is unlikely to have the capacity or need to run its own fact-checking operation. However, having the EMB as an external contributor to a fact-checking operation can enhance the effectiveness of those efforts surrounding an election.
Establishing communication links with the EMB can enable fact-checking organizations to receive quick clarification in an instance where the EMB can authoritatively weigh in on the accuracy of a piece of false or misleading information in circulation.
INE had a role to play in the #Verificado2018 fact-checking effort in Mexico, which is discussed in greater detail in the chapter on civil society responses. The collaboration was particularly valuable on Election Day, as INE was able to quickly clarify several situations. For example, INE quickly filmed and shared a video explaining why special polling sites were running out of ballot papers in response to complaints coming from those polling sites. #Verificado2018 journalists also consulted INE to verify or rebut reports of election-related violence, with that information then widely disseminated via the media. INE’s agreement with the #Verificado2018 team of journalists was that election authorities would provide clarification on every issue brought to them as soon as possible and that the Verificado team of journalists, in turn, would consult INE before publishing allegations, in addition to seeking confirmation through independent sources. 1
The arrangement between MAFINDO and Indonesian election authorities – both Bawaslu and the KPU – was also designed to facilitate quick clarification in instances where electoral misinformation or disinformation was brought to them by the fact-checking network. In practice, it was difficult at times to get speedy clarifications, an issue that MAFINDO attributed to inefficiencies in the internal flow of information that could result in receiving conflicting information from different individuals inside the EMBs.
Fact-checking organizations in Brazil were also dissatisfied with the speed and comprehensiveness of responses to requests for clarification that they directed to the TSE during the 2018 elections. The TSE reported that the volume of requests for clarification they received exceeded expectations and surpassed the capacity of their staff to respond.
From the perspective of programming support, coordination with external actors and clarifying internal lines of communication as part of strategic and crisis communication planning is something that could be of use. EMBs should be ready to be appealed to by fact-checking organizations, with a recognition that speed matters in responding. A communication protocol should clarify who should receive, process, and track the response to requests for information, who within the EMB has the authority to issue a clarification, and what the internal process for verifying the accuracy of information will be.
8.3 Outsourcing Social Listening
Like fact-checking, social listening to inform rapid incident response is another labor-intensive endeavor that EMBs may lack the capacity to conduct on their own. Civil society may be able to fill this gap through partnerships with EMBs.
In 2012 and 2016 independent media organization Penplusbytes established Social Media Tracking Centers (SMTC) to monitor social media during Ghanaian elections. The SMTCs used an open-source software that presents trends in voting logistics, violence, political parties, and other topics. These were monitored for a continuous 72-hour period by Penplusbytes staff and university students. The process included a tracking team to monitor the social media environment and pass suspect content on to a verification team that would check the accuracy of the content forwarded to them. Problematic content was then sent to an escalation team that passed on information to the National Elections Security Task Force. Members of the SMTC were also embedded within the National Election Commission.
If setting up a dedicated effort like the SMTC’s is not feasible, an EMB may be able to achieve many of the objectives of social listening for incident response through existing partnerships. Exchanging intelligence on trending narratives related to the election with fact-checking networks can be a means for EMBs to achieve the goals of social listening without the investment to build internal capacity to do this work. Similarly, EMB-established portals that allow the public to report problematic content for review, such as the Real 411 initiative in South Africa, can provide a crowdsourced approach to gain insight into problematic narratives circulating on social media.
1“New challenges for democracy: Elections in times of disinformation,” Instituto Nacional Electoral (2019): 11.