Election Management Body Approaches to Countering Disinformation

4. Social Media Monitoring for Legal and Regulatory Compliance

A limited number of EMBs have a mandate to monitor the social media use of candidates, parties, media outlets or other designated electoral stakeholders to ensure compliance with the legal and regulatory framework. Monitoring might seek to enforce legal limits on campaign spending on political advertising on social media or on campaigning outside of a designated campaign period, or to enforce restrictions on content that has been deemed illegal in the context of an election. For many EMBs, this responsibility is not part of their legal mandate. In these instances, a mandate to monitor and enforce may rest with another entity, such as a media or political finance oversight body or anti-corruption agency, and the guidance outlined in this subcategory would be applicable to their work. Developing a means to monitor social media for compliance must go hand-in-hand with the development of legal and regulatory frameworks that govern the use of social media during campaigns and elections. Without establishing a capacity to monitor, audit or otherwise effectively provide oversight, laws and regulation governing the use of social media during elections are unenforceable. 

In truth, developing effective mechanisms to monitor electoral stakeholders’ online conduct is a challenge without ready solutions for many oversight bodies. Efforts to conduct effective monitoring are often highly dependent on the transparency tools made available by social media platforms. Facebook is ahead of other platforms in rolling out political advertising transparency tools and expanding them to more countries, but many countries still lack access and local users have criticized the Facebook Ad Library for not being comprehensive. Google’s political advertising transparency tools are only available in the EU and a handful of other consolidated democracies, with no observable efforts in 2020 to expand the availability of these tools to more countries. Other platforms offer even more limited tools for political advertising transparency. 

While a range of commercial tools do exist for aggregating social media content to aid in the analysis of the online messages and conduct of political actors, the lack of customization of these tools for use by oversight bodies remains a challenge. Commercial tools are also often costly. Anecdotally, multiple oversight bodies that are starting new efforts to monitor social media during elections have shared that at present their approach is largely manual, consisting of staff members visiting the individual pages and accounts of political actors or other electoral stakeholders to analyze the content that has been posted.

Some EMBs with an oversight mandate are, however, innovating and expanding their ability to monitor social media for legal and regulatory compliance. Bawaslu, for example, monitored the official social media accounts of political candidates during 2019 Indonesian elections, though they acknowledged the limitations of this effort, observing that that candidates keep their official pages free from controversy, while any misleading or divisive content would be disseminated and amplified through social media accounts not officially associated with the campaign. This effort was part of a larger approach to monitoring social media in collaboration with the Ministry of Information and Communication and the Cyber Crime Police Unit, which included efforts to detect deceptive coordinated campaigns on social media that might have links to candidates or political parties.

The efforts of the High Independent Election Authority (HIEA) of Tunisia to establish a capacity to monitor social media during the electoral period is illustrative of some of the approaches and challenges that such an effort may employ or encounter. Tunisia’s legal framework does not have explicit provisions governing the use of social media during electoral campaigns. However, during the 2019 electoral cycle, the election commission decided to monitor online content and social media to ensure that parties and candidates were respecting the principles and rules of the campaign. This work was undertaken as an extension of the work being done by the HIEA’s Media Monitoring Unite (MMU), which looks at electronic and print media during electoral periods. While the MMU was able to surface insights into the use of social media during the election, it also ran into a challenge common to social media monitoring efforts – defining the boundaries of which accounts are subject to monitoring. In Tunisia, as in other countries, the vast majority of offenses were observed to come from undeclared pages and accounts rather than the official accounts of the candidates. This creates challenges as in most cases there is insufficient evidence to definitively attribute these violations to the candidate or campaign benefiting from the problematic content. 

4.1 Defining a monitoring approach.

Does the EMB have a legal mandate to monitor social media?

Prior to launching an EMB-led social media monitoring effort, the legal and regulatory framework must be consulted to ascertain the following:

  • Does the EMB have a legal mandate to undertake monitoring activities? 
  • If not, does this mandate lie with a different government entity that would prevent the EMB from conducting their own monitoring efforts?
  • What legal and regulatory guidance exists, if any, for the use of social media during election periods?
  • If there are no specific provisions related to the use of social media, are there general principles for the conduct of candidates, parties or other electoral stakeholders during the campaign that can be reasonably applied or extended to social media? 

What is the goal of the monitoring effort?

After consulting the legal and regulatory framework, an EMB must establish an objective for their monitoring effort. For example, is the objective:

  • To detect political advertising on social media that takes place outside of the designated campaign period? 
  • To identify instances in which online behaviors violate the legal framework governing the abuse of state resources?
  • To monitor the content posted by candidates and parties to ensure compliance with any legal guidance on refraining from hate speech directed at women or other marginalized groups, incitement to violence, disinformation about the election, or other prohibited messages? 
  • To verify that reported spending on social media political advertising is accurate? 

If there is little or no current legal or regulatory guidance on the use of social media in elections, is the effort:

  • To gather information and evidence to inform future law reform conversations or the development of a code of conduct? 
  • To raise public awareness about problematic content and behaviors that parties and candidates are engaging in on social media, including online harassment and violence against women and other marginalized groups?

What is the time-period for social media monitoring?

Based on the goal that is identified, the EMB should define how far in advance of elections social media monitoring efforts will begin, and whether they will extend to any part of the post-electoral period.

Will monitoring be an internal operation or will the EMB coordinate with other entities?

An EMB will need to ascertain whether it has sufficient capacity to conduct a media monitoring effort independently:

  • Does the EMB have the human capacity and financial resources to conduct their own monitoring effort?
  • Are there other state agencies or oversight bodies monitoring social media during elections that should be consulted or partnered with before an EMB launches their own effort? 
  • Are there any restrictions or prohibitions that would limit the EMB’s ability to procure outside services from the private sector to augment the EMB’s capacity?
  • If the objective of the monitoring effort is to gather information and evidence to inform future law reform conversations or to understand how certain marginalized groups are targeted by disinformation, is there a role for credible civil society actors focused on advocating for legal reform or representing marginalized groups to provide the EMB with additional information and analysis?   

What kinds of social media ad transparency tools are available in-country?

Understanding what is feasible for an EMB to do is in part contingent on the tools that technology and social media companies have made available in their country:

  • Will the Facebook Ad Library1 be enforcing disclosure for political and issue advertising in the relevant country? 
  • Will a Google Transparency Report2 covering political advertising be available for the country?
  • Do any other widely-used social media platforms offer transparency reports or features of any kind?
  • If yes to any of the above, is the EMB equipped to use these tools to execute their mandate or is training necessary? 
  • Does the EMB have the authority to make legally binding requests of the social media platforms for information as part of an enforcement effort?

Further discussion of the definitional considerations necessary for establishing a social media monitoring approach is found in the guidebook section on Legal and Regulatory responses to disinformation.

4.2 Tying social media monitoring to a response

Based on the identified goal of the social media monitoring effort, the EMB should identify how they will make use of the insights they gain through their monitoring efforts. 

  • If a legal and regulatory framework defining violations is in place, the EMB should identify how cases will be referred to appropriate enforcement agencies for further investigation and possible sanctions, if they do not have the ability to issue sanctions themselves. 
  • If the identified goal is to inform future regulation or the development of a code of conduct, a plan should be made for how content or behaviors that might constitute a violation under a revised legal framework is documented and explained in a way that would be compelling for the necessary audience of regulators or lawmakers. 
  • If the goal is to deter bad behavior by raising public awareness about the questionable or illegal conduct of parties and candidates, the public relations or communications department of the EMB should be involved in developing a plan for communicating findings to the general public. 

Responses must take into account gender considerations and, in particular, should ensure that violations targeting marginalized groups or exploiting stereotypes about marginalized groups are specifically addressed so that these groups are not further marginalized by responses that are blind to their concerns and experiences.

Footnotes

1The Facebook Ad Library covers advertisements running across Facebook’s apps and services, including Instagram

2Where available, Google’s transparency report covers advertising on Google, YouTube, and partner properties