A detailed case study of the State Electoral office of Estonia's establishment of an ad hoc interagency task force for countering disinformation in elections demonstrates the ways in which an election management body with limited staff and a restricted mandate can mount a comprehensive counter-disinformation response.
EMB Coordination with Other State Entities
Elections are a flashpoint for misinformation and disinformation, but they are certainly not the only target of disinformation campaigns launched against democratic actors. Ensuring that state entities beyond the EMB have an active interest in monitoring, deterring, and sanctioning disinformation is crucial. Coordination with these other state entities during electoral periods can be essential for enhancing an EMB’s ability to preserve electoral integrity in the face of misinformation and disinformation. Coordination among state entities can also align efforts and messaging to enhance efficiency and prevent the confusion of uncoordinated approaches. Coordination with other state entities can also be a valuable strategy for EMBs that have limited resources to dedicate toward counter-disinformation efforts.
“The election management body in a small-scale system cannot rely on its own capability and has to gather other specialist institutions. This does not mean that the different nodes of expertise should act on their own but, rather, through the election management body as the main focal point.” – Dr. Priit Vinkel, head of Estonia’s State Electoral Office
9.1 Establishing areas of responsibility and lines of authority
An EMB’s counter-disinformation mandate must be considered in conjunction with the efforts of other state entities to promote information integrity. Ministries of Information, Digital Ministries, and Foreign Ministries, for example, might all have counter-disinformation mandates. State intelligence agencies, the police, courts, media and communication oversight bodies, anti-corruption bodies, human rights commissions, parliamentary oversight commissions, and others may also have a role to play.
Given how many entities may possibly be involved, in the electoral context, it is valuable to understand what different state entities are doing, and what effective collaboration might look like. It may be that the EMB wants to step into an authoritative role during the electoral period. This happened in Bawaslu’s case; in advance of elections, it became clear that there was no institution in Indonesia with the authority to supervise hate speech and disinformation on social media during the electoral period.
“We asked ourselves a question – are we as Bawaslu brave enough to jump in, to supervise everything? …We put ourselves in the hot seat.” Commissioner Fritz Edward Siregar, The General Election Supervisory Agency of Indonesia (Bawaslu)
Clarifying lines of authority can ensure that there is an authoritative voice in dealing with non-state entities, such as social media companies or political parties. Social media companies in particular are more likely to engage if the expectations and guidance they are receiving from state entities is aligned.
Coordination might take the form of a task force, a formal cooperative agreement, or a more ad hoc and flexible arrangement. The role of the EMB may be different depending on whether that arrangement is a standing body that takes special actions during elections, or whether it is a group convened specifically for the purpose of countering disinformation during elections. In the case of the former, an EMB may be seen as more of a resource partner to an existing body. In the case of the latter, the EMB may be leading the response.
In Denmark, efforts to organize a coordinated government response to online misinformation and disinformation included the establishment of an inter-ministerial task force, which had a special but not exclusive focus on elections. In Indonesia, Bawaslu, the KPU, and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology signed a Memorandum of Action before the 2018 elections and continued their cooperation during the 2019 elections. The agreement focused on coordinating efforts to supervise and manage internet content, coordinating information exchange among institutions, organizing educational campaigns, and promoting voter participation.
9.2 Facilitating communication
Once institutions agree on a working arrangement, they must take steps to operationalize it. Focused discussions that delineate responsibilities and procedures for coordination can lay the groundwork for flexible and responsive communications, enabling rapid alignment and action when needed.
In Indonesia, Bawaslu held a series of face-to-face meetings with not only the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology but with the intelligence community, the army and the policy to discuss guidelines, procedures and the relationship among their institutions. Part of those discussions included identifying which entity and which individuals within those entities had the authority to issue clarifications on which issues. After the formal relationship was established, the agencies communicated via a WhatsApp group that enabled quick responses and minimized formality that could hamper effective coordination.
To illustrate how communication worked, Bawaslu shared an example in which they encountered a social media post alleging that official army vehicles were being used as part of campaign activities. The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology had the tools to find the content and bring it to the group’s attention but lacked authority to take action. The social media platforms moderation action was limited as they would be unable to determine whether the claim was true or not. The army had the information to prove that this claim was false but had no authority to flag the content for removal. By coordinating through their established WhatsApp group, all of the relevant parties were able to expeditiously identify and act on the issue – a feat that Bawaslu indicates would have taken more than a day if communication had been routed through formal communication channels.
The existing plan also enables institutions to speak with a joint voice in the case of serious allegations that might impact electoral integrity. In the case of the highly-publicized “seven containers hoax” which alleged that cargo ships full of pre-voted ballots had been sent to Jakarta, Bawaslu, the KPU, and the police held a joint press conference to clarify the situation. The process projected a united front in the effort to counter disinformation in the election.
9.3 Maintaining Independence
In coordinating with other state entities, maintaining the independence of the EMB will be of paramount importance. In countries where government ministries, intelligence agencies or other potential collaborators are aligned with a governing party or political faction, the EMB must make a judgement call on whether and how to collaborate with these institutions.
This decision may be made on a case-by-case basis. Though strong coordination existed among a number of entities in Indonesia, Bawaslu deliberately chose not to make use of the government’s LAPOR! system, a platform that facilitates communication between the public and the government, including functionality for receiving reports and complaints from the public that could have been adapted for Bawaslu’s disinformation complaints referral process. Though the platform was judged to be a technologically sophisticated tool that would have been of great use, after multiple discussions, Bawaslu ultimately decided not to use the channel given that using a tool associated with the ruling party might jeopardize their perceived independence.
“One of our considerations when we work with others is our impartiality” – Commissioner Fritz Edward Siregar, The General Election Supervisory Agency of Indonesia (Bawaslu)
9.4 Integrate into Proactive and Reactive Programming Approaches
Coordination with state agencies is something that can be or is naturally integrated into the proactive and reactive counter-disinformation strategies explored in other subcategories of this chapter.
Proactive Communication and Voter Education Strategies to Mitigate Disinformation Threats – coordination with other state agencies can be a useful way to amplify messages to larger audiences. For example, in instances where countries have credible public health agencies, partnering to communicate messages about how voting processes are changing as a result of COVID-19 can mitigate the risk that changes to election procedures could be subjects of disinformation.
Crisis Communication Planning for Disinformation Threats – Including other state agencies in crisis communication planning can build trust and working relationships that enable EMBs to get clarification and align messaging with other state entities in a crisis scenario.
EMB Codes of Conduct or Declarations of Principle for the Electoral Period – If codes of conduct are consultatively developed, the involvement of other state agencies may be beneficial to include from the outset. If codes of conduct are binding and enforceable, coordination as described under Disinformation Complaints Referral and Adjudication may be necessary.
Social Media Monitoring for Legal and Regulatory Compliance – EMBs may or may not have authority to monitor social media for compliance or to enforce violations. In instances where the EMB shares this mandate with other institutions, clarifying the comparative mandates of each body and establishing how those entities will work together is essential.
Social Listening to Understand Disinformation Threats – A minority of EMBs will be positioned to establish their own social listening and incident response system. Ministries of Information, intelligence agencies, or campaign oversight bodies may, however, already have capacity to conduct social listening. It may be the case that an EMB is unable to preserve their independence and coordinate with these entities, but if it is possible, an EMB should consider establishing a channel through which information can be effectively relayed or staff from another state agency can embed with the EMB during sensitive electoral periods.
Disinformation Complaints Referral and Adjudication Process – For enforcement, an EMB will need to coordinate with relevant entities that may have jurisdiction over different complaints. This may include media oversight or regulatory agencies, human rights commissions, law enforcement, or the courts.