Written by Julia Brothers, Senior Advisor for Elections and Political Processes at the National Democratic Institute
Democratic elections rely on a competitive process, faith in electoral institutions, and informed participation by all citizens. However, the deployment of false, exaggerated, or contradictory information in the electoral environment has been effective in undermining these principles around the world. By interfering with the formation and holding of opinions, disinformation amplifies voter confusion, dampens turnout, galvanizes social cleavages, advantages or disadvantages certain parties and candidates, and degrades trust in democratic institutions. While anti-democratic disinformation campaigns are not new, modern information technology and the platforms by which citizens get their news, including online and via social media, encourage information dissemination at speeds, distances, and volumes unprecedented in preceding electoral cycles.
International standards for democratic elections assure open, robust, and pluralistic information environments that promote equal and full participation in elections by citizens and contestants alike. These standards are enshrined in international and regional instruments, which reflect pre-existing, globally-recognized commitments that pertain to disinformation, including:
- The rights to hold opinions and to seek and receive information in order to make an informed choice on election day: Everyone has the right to form, hold, and change opinions without interference, which is integral to freely exercising the right to vote.1 Voters also have the right to seek, receive, and impart accurate information that allows them to make informed choices regarding their future, free from intimidation, violence, or manipulation.2 Further, institutions are generally obligated to be transparent regarding electoral information so that voters can be informed and data sources can be held accountable.3 These rights are enshrined for all citizens regardless of race, gender, language, area of origin, political or other opinion, religion, or other status.4 Increasingly, organizations are working to link these standards with principles focused on disinformation and cyberspace. Electoral related disinformation efforts subvert these rights, because they are designed to overwhelm genuine political debate by intentionally deceiving voters, creating confusion, exacerbating polarization, and undermining public confidence in the electoral process.
- The right to a level playing field: Universal and equal suffrage, in addition to voting rights, include the right to seek to be elected to public office without discrimination. Governments’ obligations to ensure level playing fields for electoral contestants are derived from this norm. The UN Human Rights Committee provides guidance on this in its General Comment 25 to the ICCPR. The norm implies providing security from defamatory attacks and other forms of false information aimed to harm a candidate’s or a party’s electoral fortunes. The obligations extend to government-controlled media, and the norm applies to professional ethics for journalists and private media.5 Fact-checking, other forms of verification, and traditional and social media monitoring relate to this norm, as well as to voters’ rights to receive accurate information upon which to make informed electoral choices. Manipulation of the information environment can undermine equitable competition, particularly for those that are disproportionately impacted by disinformation campaigns, like women and marginalized communities, who already face an uneven playing field.
- Freedom of expression, the press, and regulation: The aforementioned commitments must be balanced by the freedoms of everyone to hold opinions and to express them, including the need to respect and protect a free press. One aspect of addressing disinformation campaigns is to develop proper legal and regulatory frameworks, including effective sanctions. Gendered, racial, ethnic, religious, and other forms of hate speech and incitement to violence are often diffused throughout disinformation campaigns affecting candidates and voters alike. Legal regulations in this area, like protection of personal reputation, can be applicable in the disinformation context. However, regulation should not be overemphasized, and care is needed to safeguard freedom of expression while trying to protect the integrity of the information space in elections and beyond them. The UN Human Rights Committee provides guidance on this in General Comment 34.
Recognizing these necessary democratic conditions, the existence and impact of disinformation must be considered in any comprehensive assessment of an electoral process. Even if an election is well-organized and transparent, a highly compromised information environment leading up to and on election day can subvert its credibility. Identifying the types, volumes, and patterns of mis- and disinformation that may affect electoral integrity is crucial for mitigating their impact. Political watchdogs should analyze deficiencies in the information environment with an understanding of the social norms and cleavages in the local context when determining the integrity of an election and creating accountability for the universe of stakeholders who engage in or benefit from disinformation tactics.
Traditional electoral safeguards, particularly election observers, are expanding their capacities, activities, relationships, and advocacy efforts to confront disinformation threats to electoral integrity. Debunking fake news through emerging networks of fact checkers and bolstering media and digital literacy play important roles in building resilience and enhancing the information environment around elections. Those actions, as well as robust efforts to properly inform political debate and provide accurate electoral data, can inoculate against information disorder. All of such efforts can complement each other to safeguard electoral and political processes.