Written by Lisa Reppell, Global Social Media and Disinformation Specialist at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems Center for Applied Research and Learning
Digital disinformation is a real and immediate threat for election management bodies (EMBs) around the world. However, election authorities in different countries are embracing to varying degrees the expectation that they have a substantive role to play in countering disinformation related to electoral processes. Some EMBs have sophisticated social media monitoring capabilities and dedicated teams to track and respond to disinformation; others do not have any social media presence at all. For all of them, disinformation is an unwieldy threat that is being brought to their door, while the immense, primary task of the EMB – administering credible elections – continues to be just as complex an endeavor as ever.
An EMB’s resistance to taking up a role in countering disinformation may be based on an assumption that any response would require the institution to invest in a wholly new technical approach that pushes them beyond their legal, budgetary or human capacity. Though technology and social media have heightened the urgency and awareness of disinformation as a challenge to democratic processes and institutions, it is important to recognize that responses do not necessarily have to be technological in nature. In addition to technology-forward responses that some EMBs may be equipped to adopt, there are also a range of responses that EMBs can take that build on existing core functions of public relations, communication and voter education. Finding an alternate way to frame an EMB’s counter-disinformation efforts, such as investment in election authorities’ crisis and strategic communication capacity, may also be a way to gain institutional support for new initiatives.
An EMB’s specific role in contributing to the integrity of the information space around elections will vary based on its institutional mandate, resources, and capacity. Nonetheless, EMBs around the world are independently developing responses to counter disinformation in the electoral process and sharing lessons learned with peers. This section of the guidebook presents a global overview and preliminary analysis of the various EMB responses taken to counter electoral disinformation. The purpose of this analysis is to support election authorities as well as donors and implementers to combine, scale and adapt approaches based on an EMB’s capacity and the unique context in which it is working.
“We manage not just the election – but there is another thing we have to be concerned about. This is the social media issue. This makes a very big noise, but it’s not directly an election issue.” – Commissioner Fritz Edward Siregar, The General Election Supervisory Agency of Indonesia (Bawaslu)
Informative vs. Restrictive Approaches to Countering Disinformation
A fundamental tension at the heart of how EMBs choose to respond to electoral disinformation is whether to focus on increasing dissemination of credible information or on restricting or sanctioning content or behaviors deemed problematic. While it may be possible to do both with adequate resources, for some EMBs it is a question of what the guiding principle behind their approach will be. In a report summarizing their disinformation efforts in 2018 and 2019, the National Electoral Institute of Mexico (INE) sums up this choice, and the philosophy behind their approach:
“Disinformation strategies challenged INE with the need to find a way to counter them. One alternative could have been undertaking a regulatory stance … and punish[ing] pernicious practices; although it might have resulted in undue restrictions on freedom of expression. The other was to counter disinformation with its contrary: detailed, timely, and truthful explanation of the electoral process, its stages, tempos, stakeholders, and those in charge…. It was always clear for INE that this second option was the most adequate….”1
Other EMBs, often in concert with a broader intra-governmental approach, error on the side of restricting content and behaviors as a means to prevent harms.
Proactive, Reactive and Collaborative Strategies
The EMB strategies to combat disinformation discussed in this section of the guidebook are grouped into three categories: proactive, reactive and collaborative. Users can click on each strategy in the table below to explore global examples as well as analysis regarding what considerations should be made when choosing an approach.
EMBs can adopt proactive strategies in advance of electoral periods to promote trust and understanding of electoral processes, put contingency plans in place for when challenges emerge, and establish norms and standards for conduct during elections. Proactive strategies are more likely to build on pre-existing functions within an EMB. In designing a counter-disinformation strategy, EMBs and partners should acknowledge that reactive approaches that attempt to mitigate the impacts of disinformation once it is already in circulation can only address part of the problem. Election authorities, donors and implementers should not let a bias toward technologically innovative programming undercut continued investment in building the types of durable capacity that make EMBs more resilient when disinformation challenges arise.
Explore Proactive Strategies:
- Strategic Communication and Voter Education to Mitigate Disinformation Threats: Building resilience to misinformation and disinformation by ensuring voters receive credible information early, often, and in ways that resonate with them.
- Crisis Communication Planning for Disinformation Threats: Putting systems and processes in place so that an EMB is prepared to rapidly and authoritatively respond to misinformation and disinformation in high-pressure situations.
- EMB Codes of Conduct or Declarations of Principle for the Electoral Period: Creating norms and standards for political parties, candidates, media and the electorate at large that promote the integrity of the information environment around elections.
Reactive strategies to track and respond to messages in circulation that have the potential to disrupt electoral processes, generate distrust in elections, or illegitimately shift electoral outcomes are an important aspect of countering disinformation. Reactive interventions may be the first to come to mind in designing a counter-disinformation approach, but these approaches can be the most technologically difficult for EMBs to implement and the most resource intensive. While reactive interventions are an integral part of a multifaceted response to disinformation, combining them with proactive strategies and ensuring that an EMB has the capacity and appetite to implement them effectively are critical for ensuring an effective approach.
Explore Reactive Strategies:
- Social Media Monitoring for Legal and Regulatory Compliance: Monitoring social media during electoral periods to provide oversight of the social media use of candidates, campaigns and the media.
- Social Listening to Understand Disinformation Threats: Distilling meaning from conversations happening online in order to inform EMB messaging and responses to misinformation and disinformation during electoral periods.
- Disinformation Complaints Referral and Adjudication Process: Establishing a mechanism or process by which election authorities or election arbiters can adjudicate and remedy instances of disinformation.
Regardless of how narrowly or broadly an EMB interprets its mandate to engage in counter-disinformation work, to achieve maximum impact the efforts of election authorities must be coordinated with the efforts of other state agencies and institutions. EMBs are likely to maximize the impact of their efforts through coordination or exchange with other stakeholders, including social media and technology companies, civil society and traditional media actors, as well as other state entities. There will always be aspects of the disinformation problem that fall outside the mandate of the EMB. The appropriate allocation of responsibilities in a way that allows EMBs to focus their counter-disinformation efforts on electoral integrity considerations – while coordinating their response with other stakeholders better equipped to handle other facets of the problem – will enable a more concentrated and focused effort on the part of the EMB.
Explore Coordination Strategies:
- EMB Coordination with Social Media and Technology Companies: Coordination between EMBs and technology and social media companies to enhance the dissemination of credible information or restrict the spread of problematic content during electoral periods.
- EMB Coordination with Civil Society and Media: Partnerships with civil society and media to build coalitions to counter disinformation and enhance an EMB’s ability to monitor and respond to misinformation and disinformation.
- EMB Coordination with Other State Agencies: Partnerships with other state entities to distribute responsibilities and coordinate responses to misinformation and disinformation.
- Peer Exchange Among EMBs on Counter-Disinformation Strategies: Creating opportunities for exchange of lessons learned and good practice among election authorities.
Should EMBs have a responsibility to counter disinformation?
This is a question on which EMBs are not in agreement. Differences in legal mandates, political context, availability of resources, and technical capacity all influence the degree to which an EMB might be willing and able to adopt a substantive role in countering disinformation.
Different EMBs highlight various aspects of their legal mandate to justify their role in counter-disinformation work. Oversight of the conduct of political candidates or the media during the electoral period, or a voter education or voter information mandate, are some of the avenues that EMBs might use to define the parameters of their role in countering disinformation. A broad responsibility for EMBs to maintain the fundamental right of citizens to vote can also be grounds for an EMB to take an active role. Differing legal mandates will inform what programming is possible to implement with an EMB. For instance, an extension of some EMBs’ mandates to monitor traditional media during electoral periods might naturally be extended to monitoring social media as well. For other EMBs, the monitoring of social media during electoral periods would be an inappropriate overstep of their legal mandate. Any programming to bolster EMB-responses to disinformation must be grounded in a thorough understanding of the bounds of what is legally permissible.
From a resource perspective, strained budgets or limited control by the EMB over how to use allocated funds can make it difficult to dedicate resources to counter-disinformation activities, particularly if they are seen to divert resources from other essential aspects of election administration. If EMBs struggle to muster the resources to conduct their core mandate of delivering elections, the investment of resources to build out a significant capacity to address disinformation is likely to be untenable.
While disinformation responses can be housed within different departments of an EMB, many EMBs have chosen to give this mandate to the public relations or communications staff. The Independent National Electoral Commission of Nigeria, with 90 full time communications staff, has enacted and can consider counter-disinformation approaches that are unlikely to be practicable for an EMB with a communications staff of only a few people.
From a technical and human capacity perspective, EMBs may also lack the human resources to contemplate responses to disinformation that are time intensive or technologically sophisticated. Recruiting and retaining staff that have knowledge of social media and technology more broadly can be difficult, particularly if the EMB is attempting to build out an entirely new capacity, as opposed to strengthening or investing additional resources in a capacity that already exists.
As a final consideration, the political context in which an EMB operates may also impact the institutional independence of the EMB in ways that limit its efficacy as a counter-disinformation actor. In instances where an EMB’s actions are subject to or constrained by the political influence of domestic actors, extending an EMB’s mandate to counter disinformation may be ineffective and the EMB may be reluctant to take on such a role. If the EMB is already perceived to be partial, its efforts to counter disinformation may also further damage its credibility in the eyes of the public.
1“New challenges for democracy: Elections in times of disinformation,” Instituto Nacional Electoral (2019): 6.