Election Management Body Approaches to Countering Disinformation

5. Social Listening to Understand and Respond to Disinformation Threats

Rather than monitoring the behavior of certain actors, social listening is an attempt to gain insights into the sentiment, misperceptions, or dominant narratives circulating on social media and other online forums in order to inform appropriate action. An EMB may wish to set up social listening to inform a rapid incident response system or to inform strategic and communication planning. Gaining insight into what narratives are circulating and gaining popularity in online spaces can provide EMBs with insights into how to effectively counter narratives that threaten election integrity.

If electoral authorities wish to monitor political parties or other electoral stakeholders for compliance with the legal and regulatory framework, please refer to the prior subsection on Social Media Monitoring for Legal and Regulatory Compliance.

5.1 Understand EMB capacity and purpose

Setting up a social listening and response capacity is not a one-size-fits-all effort. Some EMBs have the staff capacity, recognized mandate, and financial resources to set up comprehensive efforts. For other EMBs, the barriers to entry to establishing social listening capacity may seem (or be) insurmountable and may divert attention from more essential activities. If donors and international assistance providers are assisting an EMB to establish or strengthen a social listening capacity, it is essential to tailor the monitoring effort to fit the EMB’s needs and capacity.

EMBs will have different purposes for setting up social listening capacity. This subsection focuses primarily on EMBs that wish to build a real-time monitoring effort that allows them to identify and respond to disinformation or other problematic content swiftly. Other EMBs may wish to use social listening earlier in the electoral cycle to inform communication strategies. This proactive strategy is briefly discussed in this subcategory for ease of comparison with other reactive applications of social listening. These efforts are not mutually exclusive and an EMB may choose to pursue both.

5.2 Social listening to inform rapid incident response

The National Electoral Institute (INE) of Mexico’s social listening and incident response efforts illustrate what a fully-staffed and resourced social listening effort can look like. INE designed and deployed “Project Certeza” in the days prior to and on Election Day in 2018, and also implemented the same system for 2019 elections. Project Certeza’s purpose was to “identify and deal with false information disseminated, particularly through social networks but also through any other media, that could produce uncertainty or distrust in the citizenry about the electoral authority’s responsibilities as the election is happening.” This effort included a technological monitoring system developed by INE, which screened millions of pieces of social media content and other sources for potentially problematic words and phrases associated with elections. That flagged content was then referred to human moderators for verification and determination on whether the content required action. In addition to this remote monitoring, INE hired a network of temporary field operators to gather real-world information and document first-hand evidence that could be used to refute false and inaccurate claims. Evidence and analysis from the remote monitoring team and field teams were then shared with INE’s social outreach division, where specifically-tailored refutations or voter information content was shared via social networks and with media outlets. The team working on Project Certeza included senior officials from eight different divisions at INE, which meant that immediate decisions could be made on appropriate responses. An effort as comprehensive as Mexico’s will be beyond the reach of most EMBs. However, elements may still be illustrative to other EMBs designing their own social listening efforts.

As an alternative to such an approach, election authorities might consider interventions that help voters encounter reliable information when they seek more details about a piece of disinformation that they have encountered. Election authorities in the U.S. State of Colorado monitored social media to identify trending misinformation and disinformation about the U.S. 2020 elections and then purchased Google ads tied to relevant search terms. This was an attempt to ensure that information seekers using the search engine to look up the disinformation they encountered were directed to credible sources, rather than surfacing search results that further fed conspiracy. Placing Google ads to ensure credible results appear at the top of a search page can be one approach to combat disinformation that emerges through “data voids,” which can occur when obscure search queries have few results associated with them, making it easier for disinformation actors to optimize their content in ways that ensure information seekers encounter content that confirms rather than rebuts disinformation.   

Another prospective area for social listening that might be better suited to EMBs that lack internal capacity to set up an independent effort is partnering with a technical assistance provider, working with civil society or contracting a credible private entity that specializes in social listening to set up an early warning system of alerts that could be monitored by EMB staff. Alerts could be built around key phrases, such as the name of the EMB, that would be triggered when social media content containing those phrases starts to go viral. The alerts could be designed based on high likelihood, high impact scenario planning that might be included as part of the development of a crisis communication strategy. For example, an EMB might determine that voter registration in a particular region or the integrity of overseas voting are topics at high risk of being the subject of damaging mis- or disinformation. By anticipating these scenarios, the EMB could tailor alerts that would flag potentially problematic content as it starts to gain popularity.

This approach would be considerably less comprehensive than a well-staffed internal monitoring effort, but for EMBs that lack more robust options, limited solutions may still have value. This research has not surfaced any examples of EMBs using this strategy currently, but a network of civil society actors in Slovakia, including media monitoring and elections CSO Memo98, used a similar model to set up a series of alerts for the Slovak Health Ministry to notify them of trending misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19. The ability of their counterparts at the Ministry to use the alerts in actionable ways was limited, suggesting that any initiative of this nature must be carefully planned to meet the needs and capacity of the EMB. 

Existing methodologies for detecting online violence against women in elections could be adapted to assist EMBs in understanding the ways in which gendered messages are contributing to distortions of the information environment around elections and to craft more impactful responses based on these insights. CEPPS has used AI-informed social listening to monitor online violence against women in elections, and findings and lessons learned from this work could be used to inform disinformation programming. Lessons learned from this work confirm that automated data mining techniques only go so far in distinguishing problematic content, and that the combination of automated techniques and human coders is essential to having accurate insights. 

5.3 Social listening to inform strategic and crisis communication planning: 

Social listening can be integrated into the development of communication strategies, providing insights into how electoral processes, the information environment and the EMB are perceived among different demographic groups. This understanding can in turn help an EMB craft evidence-based communication strategies to reach different audiences.

To inform its strategic and crisis communication planning, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) of Kenya worked with a social listening firm to receive an overview of the social and digital media landscape in Kenya prior to 2017 elections. Insights gained through social listening are made more valuable through further analysis; the outside firm combined insights from their social media analysis with findings from a series of focus group discussions that explored awareness and perception of various digital platforms, as well as understanding how different sources of information were used by voters and the motivations behind sharing “fake news,” misinformation, and hate speech. Focus group participants also shared perceptions of the IEBC and provided feedback on the persuasiveness of sample messaging strategies. Engaging outside experts to conduct this analysis can supplement the EMB's capacity.

5.4 Defining a Monitoring Approach

Given the variations in need and capacity, each monitoring approach must be calibrated to suit the institution that uses it. 

What is the goal of the social listening approach?

Examples of insights EMB can gain through social listening include:

How the EMB is being talked about on social media. 

Given that one goal of anti-democratic influence operations is to undermine trust in electoral processes and institutions, social listening can help an EMB engage in some degree of “reputation management.” Social listening can give insights into where EMB performance may be seen as lacking, can help explain any accusations directed toward the EMB, or can help EMBs understand where a lack of transparency in their operations might generate distrust.

Whether false or problematic narratives about elections are gaining traction on social media.  

As part of an Election Day incident response plan, an EMB can monitor social media for allegations of malpractice, fraud, or violence in certain regions or at particular polling stations that need to be corrected or acknowledged. They can also use this information to determine how to distribute resources or support to districts or polling stations that are experiencing difficulties.

Whether misinformation or disinformation is circulated that might suppress voter turnout or otherwise impact the integrity of the election.

Based on their crisis communication planning, EMBs can determine when and how they will respond to voter interference messages that they might detect circulating on social media. If social listening reveals ways in which certain populations are being targeted as subjects or consumers of disinformation, for example, an EMB could use that information to focus counter messages toward impacted populations. 

What is the time period for social listening?

An EMB must determine how far in advance of elections social listening efforts will begin. Depending on resources and the goals of the social listening exercise, EMBs may choose to monitor only a narrow window of time around Election Day, or they may choose to monitor the entirety of the campaign period. EMBs using social listening for rapid incident response should also plan to continue efforts through the immediate post electoral period, when false and misleading information with the potential to incite violence or delegitimize results may be at its highest. 

For EMBs using social listening to inform their strategic or crisis communication plans, EMBs must strike a balance between completing this work far enough in advance to have strategies in place in time for the election, but not so far in advance that voters’ opinions about the information environment are outdated by Election Day.

Will the social listening effort be an internal operation or will the EMB partner with other entities?

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

  • Does the EMB have the capacity and resources to conduct their own social listening effort?
  • Are there other state agencies, civil society organizations or academics conducting similar work that might be able to partner with the EMB to do this work? 
  • 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?

Which tools will the EMB use to monitor social media platforms or other online sources? 

If an EMB does not have the capacity to develop their own system, as Mexico’s INE did, a range of social listening tools are available. Those that are most comprehensive are available through paid subscription. Many of these tools and possible applications are discussed in NDI’s publication Data Analytics for Social Media Monitoring.

5.5 Tying social listening to action

The purpose of engaging in social listening is to inform more effective responses from the EMB. To that end, social listening for the purpose of rapid incident response should be closely aligned with an EMB’s crisis communication planning. Based on scenario planning done during crisis communication planning, the EMB should map out what their process will be for responding to any problematic or misleading content that they identify through social listening. There should be  clear lines of internal communication for verifying suspect content. This process may include receiving rapid input from regional election commissions or individual polling stations. Communication channels, including traditional media actors or identified trusted messengers, should also be established in advance.

Additionally, social listening may surface cases that may be referred to another government entity. For credible reports of activities in violation of the criminal code, the EMB should be prepared to refer reports to the appropriate actor. For example, INE’s social listening efforts in 2019 Mexican elections surfaced three credible reports of vote buying that were referred to the Special Attorney on Electoral Crimes.