Election Management Body Approaches to Countering Disinformation

1. Strategic Communication and Voter Education to Mitigate Disinformation Threats

In an era of information overload and digital disinformation, it is critical that EMBs are able to cut through the noise with proactive and focused messaging.  As credible information can easily be lost in a sea of distracting, problematic and misleading messages, the impetus is on authoritative actors – such as EMBs – to ensure credible messages are reaching the right audiences in ways that resonate with them. Proactive counter-disinformation messaging can be embedded within an EMB’s larger communication strategy, or can be one of the outputs of a dedicated counter-disinformation planning process. Either way, an effective communication strategy requires planning and refinement in advance of an election.   Depending on patterns of social media use in their country, an EMB may also have the opportunity to use social media to reach specific audiences susceptible to or likely to be targeted by disinformation, such as women, people with disabilities, and people with lower levels of education, among other groups. 

Like all of the measures in this section of the guidebook, proactive communication strategies can and should be combined with other proactive, reactive or coordinated responses to form a comprehensive and inclusive approach to improving the integrity of the information environment around elections. The balance or combination of these measures is likely to vary from one election to the next. 

Proactive messaging should not be confused with the more limited idea of messaging that raises public awareness about the existence of disinformation. Awareness of disinformation as a threat is already on the rise, with a 2018 Pew Center survey showing that almost two thirds of adults across 11 surveyed countries believe “people should be very concerned about exposure to false or incorrect information.” This finding is further supported by CEPPS public opinion research. Messaging can and should seek to raise awareness of the need to be critical of information sources, think before sharing content, and other basic tenets of digital literacy. However, messaging should also focus on the broader goal of communicating in ways that build trust in the EMB and faith in the integrity of electoral processes.

1.1 EMB visibility has value

Building a track record of consistent communication can help an EMB to message with authority during times of confusion or heightened tension that might stem from mis- or disinformation. As a new wave of digital disinformation has made clear, investments in an EMBs’ capacity to deliver their core communication mandate through new and established channels is increasingly vital. 

The INE of Mexico provides one model to consider for EMBs’ developing their own organizational approaches to countering disinformation. INE designed a robust digital media strategy ahead of 2018 elections, aiming to increase the volume of credible, engaging content contending for user-attention on social media. During the 2018 electoral period, INE produced and disseminated over six thousand pieces of digital content, which were also available through a centralized website focused on public outreach.

 “We bet on a different strategy – to confront disinformation with information.” — Dr. Lorenzo Córdova Vianello, Councilor President of the National Electoral Institute of Mexico

INEC Nigeria - Facebook photoThe INEC of Nigeria deploys its longstanding institutional investment in public communication as a bulwark against disinformation. During electoral periods, the INEC provides daily televised briefings, participates in live TV interviews, issues regular press statements to explain the policies and decisions of the commission, and runs the INEC Citizens Contact Centre (ICCC) to provide the public with access to the commission and communicate with critical stakeholders. INEC has also had an active social media presence for more than a decade, using it as a channel to disseminate information and interact with voters. As the INEC confronts digital disinformation, their existing communication capacities are being reconsidered and adapted to enhance INEC’s transparency, credibility and perceived integrity in order to sustain public trust and confidence.  

The Brazilian Superior Electoral Court (TSE) augmented their traditional public outreach strategies through investment into widely-adopted mobile applications that allow election authorities to communicate rapidly and directly with voters and poll workers. The “e-Título” mobile app works as a virtual voter ID card, helps voters identify their polling stations and provides an avenue for direct communication between the TSE and voters.  The “Mesários” application provides information and training to poll workers. During the 2020 electoral period, more than 300 million messages were sent to the almost 17 million users of these apps with timely and reliable information on election organization, health protocols amidst Covid-19, and tips to fight fake news.

“We want to prevent the dissemination of fake news not with content control, but with clarification, critical consciousness and quality information.” — Justice Luís Roberto Barroso, President of the Brazilian Superior Electoral Court (TSE)

1.2 Counter the objectives of the propaganda, rather than the propaganda itself

A proactive communication strategy will attempt to anticipate what categories of false or problematic messages are likely to gain traction and be damaging during a specific election, and will then aim to build resilience in those areas. The Harvard Belfer Center’s Handbook on National Counter Information Operations Strategy emphasizes that communicators should seek to counter the objectives of propaganda, rather than the propaganda itself. A proactive communications campaign that builds public understanding of election procedures and public trust in the integrity of the EMB is likely more effective preparation than trying to anticipate each false narrative malign actors might choose to employ, particularly since these actors can change and adapt strategies quickly. If one false narrative is not gaining traction, they can simply switch to another.

“Given the volume and content of information operations that competitors can spew out through social and traditional media, [authorities] cannot and should not respond to each false narrative individually. Addressing the content directly adds fuel to the narrative’s fire.” — Belfer Center Handbook on National Counter Information Operation Strategy

Electoral disinformation within an EMB’s purview might seek to undermine faith in the value or integrity of elections or election authorities, incite electoral violence, or seed suspicions of fraud that lay the groundwork for post-electoral legal challenges. As a proactive approach, EMBs  and other stakeholders could design a communication strategy in advance of the election around the goals of enhancing transparency and building understanding of electoral processes, highlighting election security measures, or explaining the election dispute resolution process. 

Electoral disinformation might also seek to prevent specific groups from participating in the electoral process by spreading false information about the rights of certain groups and by targeting specific groups with false election information. Disinformation campaigns frequently manipulate and amplify hate speech and identity-based social divisions, allowing malign actors to heighten social polarization for personal or political gain. EMBs can proactively combat these efforts by ensuring that their communications strategies target majority groups and minority groups with messages that highlight the rights of women, people with disabilities, and other marginalized groups to equally participate in the electoral process as well as other targeted voter information. To reached different groups, information might need to have unique dissemination strategies that differ from general voter education efforts – person-to-person; in markets, churches, and other common places; in simple language, in images, or in minority languages – to take into account barriers these groups face when accessing information. 

Given changes to the administration of elections introduced through electoral reform in 2014 in Mexico,  misunderstanding of the new processes was a potential source for misinformation and disinformation during the 2018 election process, the first under the new reforms. A key push of INE’s public communications strategy ahead of the elections was to build understanding of the mechanics of voting, counting and results transmission by explaining new processes clearly and simply so that people knew what to expect at every moment during the election. Communicating in a way that reinforced INE’s political neutrality was also key, as the authorities knew that partisan or bad actors might attempt to politicize the institution.

In Indonesia, where intercommunal fault lines are ripe for exploitation, the election oversight body, Bawaslu, created PSAs against incitement to violence and hate speech and promoting digital literacy in advance of 2018 elections.  The PSAs were developed with IFES support and disseminated via YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Bawaslu’s websites as well as digital billboards throughout Jakarta. These PSAs were followed by a second round focusing on the role of participative public election monitoring and tutorials on election violation reporting tools as well as cautions against incitement to violence and disinformation. The strategy and storylines for the PSAs were developed through a consultative workshop facilitated by IFES with both election management bodies and key civil society partners. 

1.3 Effective Messaging to Promote Information Integrity

Make Messages Engaging

In the face of constant innovation in communication methods, EMBs must respond to the evolving nature of communication. By no means does this mean that EMBs should abandon traditional communication channels; radio, television and newspapers still directly reach a larger share of the population than social media in most countries, and traditional media is still a part of the information ecosystem that amplifies false and misleading information that originates online. However, revising and innovating within their communication approaches can help EMBs meet their key audiences with messages they will more readily consume and remember. Explicitly identifying ways to create engaging content can be an important part of an EMB counter-disinformation strategy. 

Even if an EMB is already using social media to some degree, strategic consideration should be given to the value of engaging with voters on new platforms or utilizing new features on the platforms where they have an established presence. For example, though the South African IEC has been present on Facebook and Twitter for nearly a decade, during 2019 they made use of a voter registration Snapchat feature for the first time. This in-app feature connected Snapchat users to voter registration resources, and the number of South African users taking advantage of this feature to register exceeded averages from other countries. Brazil’s TSE, while continuing to expand their use of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, established a TikTok presence less than two months before 2020 local elections. Given that content on TikTok can organically reach large audiences without needing to build a follower base first, in those two months, the TSE’s TikTok account gained 20,000 followers and millions of views for their library of approximately 80 videos; a TikTok video outlining health protocols to be followed on Election Day achieved over 1.2 million views alone.

In Taiwan, the form of counter messages coming from official channels is encouraged to be funny and “memetic” to increase the likelihood that counter messaging can organically go viral via the same channels through which disinformation proliferates. For example, to prevent the transmission of misinformation and disinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic, Digital Minister Audrey Tang has established the Taiwan FactCheck Center, which include Meme Engineering teams that partner with national comedians to clarify online rumors to the public in an expedient, humorous, and effective way. This ‘humor over rumor’ strategy is acknowledged as a critical strategy in helping curb the spread of COVID-19 in Taiwan, and this approach can be adapted when countering disinformation beyond the pandemic. 

To make content both engaging and credible, EMBs can also identify trusted messengers with the ability to reach specific audiences. Establishing lines of communication with leaders or members of religious groups, sports clubs, libraries, professional networks or other traditionally apolitical spaces might be a means to reach new audiences with proactive messaging. Nigeria’s INEC, for example, works with actors and other celebrities to visit college campuses and build enthusiasm among youth voters. Brazil’s TSE partnered with football clubs as part of their #NaoTransmitaFakeNews campaign urging users to not spread fake news. Eighteen football clubs participated in the campaign, which garnered more than 80 million Twitter impressions across the first and second round of the election.

These networks of trusted messengers, when built in advance, can also be used as dissemination channels and amplifiers in instances where false information needs to be debunked, an approach that is discussed further in the subsection on crisis communication. While these networks can be built by national election authorities, regional EMBs might also benefit from building their own subnational networks of trusted messengers. 

Make Messages Inclusive and Accessible

Ensuring that messages are inclusive and accessible to all people and, in particular, groups that have been historically marginalized, is a key consideration for EMBs. EMBs should ensure that they consider the diverse ways people access voter information. For example, men in a given country might be more likely to rely on television for voter information, while women might rely on radio messages or conversations with neighbors. EMBs can conduct surveys or polls, or consult with organizations that represent people from different marginalized groups, in order to understand how different voters access information and then be responsive to those needs.  

In addition, many social media platforms offer ways for users to easily add accessibility features, such as alternative (alt) text to describe photos for screen readers, posting a transcript for an audio file such as a radio recording, or including subtitles or captions for videos. EMBs that use these features, and that include actors and images of people with disabilities and other diverse identities in their campaigns make their content more inclusive and accessible. EMBs can help ensure that the content they produce is accessible by distributing messages in multiple formats, such as sign language, easy-to-read, and local languages, and consulting with civil society organizations on the most commonly used platforms, pages and handles. 

For example, ahead of the August 2020 elections in Sri Lanka, the EMB collaborated with a group of DPOs to create a social media campaign to ensure people with psychosocial disabilities knew they had the right to vote and to raise awareness with political parties of the need to eliminate derogatory language from their political campaigns. The campaign, produced both Sinhala and Tamil, reached nearly 50,000 people and resulted in the EMB Chairman releasing a public statement acknowledging the political rights of people with psychosocial disabilities. 

Another key point in accessibility is considering the gap in access to and knowledge of certain technologies for certain populations. The gender gap in access to technical tools and the internet, for example, is well-documented and underscores the need to continue to disseminate messages in ways that are accessible to those who might not have consistent access to technology. 

Make Messages Memorable

To make a proactive counter narrative memorable in the face of an onslaught of repetitive and reinforcing disinformation, it must have a clear point and it must be repeated many times. Research suggests that for both true and false claims, information that is repeated feels more true, even if it goes against what you think you know. 

In response to a fraudulent campaign in which bad actors were using the Central Election Commission’s (CEC) name to knock on doors and collect personal information, the Georgian EMB widely disseminated the message that it does not collect information in this manner, and then repeated the message via multiple communication channels. The EMB’s response did not simply contradict the message that was being spread, but it used the initial incident to raise public awareness about the methods that were being used to deceive and to share a clear message on how to get credible information if voters were faced with similar uncertainty in the future. 

Messaging does not need to be technologically groundbreaking to be effective, but adapting approaches to fit new needs is critical. Stretched resources and staff, outdated or nonexistent strategic communication strategies, and a belief that the truth of a message should speak for itself can undermine the communication effectiveness of EMBs. Reflecting on a press conference that her institution had held to debunk false information circulating about upcoming elections, a staff member of an East African Election Commission observed that it had only served to increase the virality of the rumors and encourage the disinformation. Reactive, static and unengaging counter-messages are less likely to achieve the desired result of building trust in the process.

1.4 Take advantage of unique aspects of social media for EMB use 

Social media can provide EMBs that are equipped to use it with a potent tool for increasing institutional transparency, building trust, and executing their voter education mandates. While institutional use of social media is no longer a cutting-edge idea, there are EMBs that still do not use social media at all, and many that are working to keep their approaches current as patterns of social media use evolve. For countries with high rates of social media penetration, investment in an EMB’s social media capacity is a moderate cost, high impact way of reaching key audiences and providing a counter narrative on the same channels where digital disinformation is originating and spreading. 

Use social media for two-way communication

Social media has the potential to provide a direct channel of dialogue between EMBs and voters. Training and empowering designated EMB staff to take advantage of this two-way channel for communication is therefore very important. Because of the informality of the medium, social media has the potential to be a more authentic, open, timely and responsive means of communication. An EMB’s willingness to directly engage with voters through their social media channels to provide quick, personal communication can build trust and provide an authoritative source where voters can seek or verify information. In deciding to adopt a more robust social media presence, EMBs should be resourced and prepared to follow through on this potential. Once an EMB opens this channel for conversation, they must be ready to sustain it

 “The deployment of Social Media as a communication strategy employed by INEC has had a profound impact on electoral processes, changing the channels used by citizens and voters to obtain information from the traditional media or one-way communication channel to the mobile-based platforms that allow for two-way interactions through user-generated content and communication.” — Dr. Sa’ad Umar Idris, Director-General INEC Electoral Institute, Nigeria

Segment audiences and reach target audiences

Social media also allows for the potential to segment and reach audiences with messages more uniquely calibrated to resonate with them. This is a powerful strategy already employed by disinformation actors. 

There are two lenses to use when identifying audiences that an EMB may want to target with specialized counter-disinformation messaging. Considering both of these at the outset of developing a counter-disinformation communication strategy can yield different insights into which audiences to reach and how to reach them.

The first lens is to consider audiences that are likely to be consumers of misinformation and disinformation that might impact their willingness or ability to participate. For example, an EMB might identify first time voters, voters with disabilities, voters from an ethnic or linguistic minority -- or any other group of voters -- as particularly at risk of encountering disinformation designed to suppress their democratic participation. By identifying tactics that might be used to inhibit the participation of these groups, EMBs can design and target content that dispels misunderstanding about voter registration, builds understanding of the accessibility of polling stations, or outlines the steps taken to ensure the secrecy and safety of casting a ballot. It is important, of course, for the EMB to understand if these targeted populations are actually using social media platforms (and which ones) before employing this strategy. For example, certain marginalized groups might be more likely to use specific social media platforms because of different individual, institutional, and cultural barriers. 

The IEC of South Africa identifies youth, special voters and those voting abroad in their communication planning as distinct audiences they are trying to reach with specific messages. Furthermore, they build discrete communication campaigns into their overall communication strategy, including messaging around registration, applications for special voting and voting abroad, voting procedures and awareness building about digital disinformation. Integrating this segmentation into a cohesive communication strategy that includes social media can be an important way of proactively using social media to provide information, create a feedback loop, and reach audiences that might need more information as a precursor to participation. 

The second lens is to think about audiences that might be the subject of a disinformation campaign. This might take the form of a disinformation campaign that evokes existing currents of hate against marginalized populations to suppress participation, allege electoral fraud, or promote outrage among dominant identity groups. For example, a disinformation campaign may be designed to intimidate women candidates into dropping out of a race or to allege that immigrant populations are engaging in large-scale voter fraud. 

The complexity of this task can be tailored to match the needs and capacity of an individual EMB, recognizing that for some EMBs only very basic approaches will be possible or advisable and for other EMBs, advanced techniques would be entirely appropriate. 

It should be noted that in the hands of commercial entities and malign actors, tactics such as those above have been understandably treated with suspicion. While EMBs should always adhere to a high standard of data privacy and data protection, these widely available tools are largely value neutral – it is the uses to which they are put that determine their ethical implications. If EMBs and other democratic institutions do not take advantage of the ways in which social media tools can be leveraged to promote democratic goals and the integrity of their institutions, then they can never hope to compete in their ability to shape the information space around elections or around democracy more broadly and will continue to be outmatched by bad actors on the messaging front.  

“You have to use social media to engage proactively. If you only use it to react, control or limit social media then that is a losing wicket” — Vice-Chairperson Janet Love, Electoral Commission of South Africa 

 

Footnotes