International election observation missions are committed to assessing the quality of an electoral process in its entirety, including in the pre-election, election day, and post-election periods. This commitment is rooted in the Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation (Declaration of Principles or DoP). Therefore, consideration of the information environment, including the role of disinformation, hate speech, and other online forms of content where they play a significant role represent a critical part of any mission assessment. Additionally, according to the DoP, gender considerations must be emphasized not only at the individual mission level but also at the international and normative level. In the context of the information environment, this would include an understanding of the dimensions of Violence Against Women in Politics (VAW-P) and in Elections including their online manifestations such as gendered disinformation. This may involve incorporating analysis and recommendations concerning the information environment into pre-election and election day statements. Missions should strive to expand the pool of key informants and interlocutors from whom long- and short-term observers collect information, such as social media experts, academics, tech industry representatives, women’s rights activists, and media monitors, both in-country and from outside. Observation missions may also want to diversify the profiles of pre-election and election day analysts and delegates to include civic technologists, digital communications experts, or others with particular knowledge of gendered digital manipulation techniques. Where needed, missions may seek to influence social media firms if analysis reveals serious challenges to electoral integrity, whether through disinformation, hate speech or other influences.
In some cases, particularly for missions in countries experiencing acute disinformation campaigns around elections, a core team member or analyst could be slotted to concentrate on developing analysis of the dimensions of disinformation in the electoral context. For instance, in Nigeria the European Union deployed a media and digital communications analyst to cover the online space for the 2019 Nigerian presidential election, and has deployed other media monitors in different contexts globally.
Similarly, for its international election observation missions of Ukraine’s 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, NDI hired a long-term information environment analyst as part of the mission’s core team. The mission recognized the role that the information environment, including disinformation in traditional and social media, was likely to play in those high-profile elections. Like the mission’s other thematic experts, such as gender and legal framework analysts, the information environment analyst provided a clear focal point on the issue to ensure that all aspects of the mission were taken into account, including information disorder as an electoral integrity issue.
The long-term analyst (LTA) collected data from key interlocutors and pre-existing data sets and monitored 26 regional and national Telegram channels, which revealed a pattern of disproportionately negative posts regarding the electoral process and the two major presidential candidates. This and other analyses by the LTA contributed substantially to the findings of the observation mission. In particular they framed the extent to which foreign and domestic online campaigns influenced the electoral process and how political parties, candidates, and less transparent third party supporting accounts utilized online campaigning to shape the digital landscape. This builds on the NDI's experience from its 2017 observation mission in Georgia, during which it deployed a long-term information environment analyst for the first time.
Other international and intergovernmental observer organizations, such as the Carter Center, Democracy Reporting International, the Organization of American States (OAS), and the OSCE/Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) have also been integrating social media monitoring into their broader observation missions over the last several years, and the international observation community continues to work together to strengthen capacity and harmonize norms in this area. In some cases, they collaborate with civil society organizations such as Slovakia's Memo 98, which has developed media monitoring programs since the 90s. The linkage between traditional media monitoring and social media monitoring is important to note, and Memo 98, as with many organizations, has shifted from examining traditional media to social networking platforms in the last five years. Since its initial forays examining the online reach of Russian outlets such as RT and Sputnik in 2015, Memo 98 has broadened its social media focus, supporting the European Union, OSCE, and other election observation missions in Europe and elsewhere.
Memo 98 media monitoring activists deployed online analysis through OSCE monitoring missions in Georgia in 2017 and for the European Union Parliamentary Elections. In the latter case, they worked to determine the extent to which messages on Facebook impacted the issues presented by political parties during the election. Memo 98 did not find that the parties attacked each other significantly in the posts and, rather, resulted in the unification against extremism. Memo 98 also monitored the Belarus 2020 election in collaboration with Belarusian NGOs Linked Media and the EAST Center. They developed reporting focused on social media and contrasted how the country’s skewed national traditional media resulted in President Lukashenko receiving 97 percent of coverage while opposition candidates were able to post and garner some attention on social media such as Facebook.
As with other groups in Eastern Europe, Memo 98 is uniquely positioned to understand the potential of foreign influence operations, particularly emanating from Russia. As its director, Rasto Kuzel, notes:
"Obviously we could not ignore [the online space] any more after 2016. And that's why we started working on some kind of methodological approach. We saw that...understanding the basics of content analysis, understanding what the data shows us, understanding the larger picture, you show some of these infinitives but do we get a sense? Like how big a problem this is in the whole election environment. I mean, what is the real impact of social media in a particular country? And how does it correlate with traditional media and so on and so forth."9
Balancing the impact of both social and traditional media is a challenge in understanding conversations online, where the traditional media also plays a role. While traditional media monitoring is limited to the officially licensed media, television, radio and print, social media is difficult, if not impossible, to observe completely. Yet, as Kuzel notes, it is important to include it in any observation, and groups are working collectively to develop new methodologies for the online environment. With the Council of Europe, Kuzel has recently published a guide on media monitoring in elections that includes a section on social media methods based on his experience. New tools like Crowdtangle, a social media research application owned by Facebook that collects publicly available data about groups and pages on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Reddit, form a critical component. As Kuzel notes: "With Crowdtangle for Facebook and Instagram we can get the historical data, which makes a big difference. We feel more comfortable when we can analyze bigger periods and more data and that was not always the case."10 Tools such as Crowdtangle increase the field of view for observers, but hide comments and other private information about users. Observers and other researchers should be aware of any tool's blind spots, (e.g. private Facebook groups) that are not covered by the platform.
9. Interview by Daniel Arnaudo (National Democratic Institute) with Rasto Kuzel, Memo 98, September 1, 2020.
10. Interview by Daniel Arnaudo (National Democratic Institute) with Rasto Kuzel, Memo 98, September 1, 2020.