Developing Norms and Standards on Disinformation

3. Party commitments to nonuse of disinformation and computational propaganda and promotion of information integrity principles

Updated On
Apr 06, 2021

Parties are a critical component of political systems, and their adherence to normative frameworks is a challenging but central part of any political system’s susceptibility to disinformation and other negative forms of content. When candidates and parties adhere to normative standards, for instance, to refrain from the use of computational propaganda methods and the promotion of false narratives, it can have a positive effect on the integrity of information in political systems. When parties, particularly major players in political systems, refrain from endorsing these standards or actively work to adopt and adapt such kinds of misleading methods, such as disinformation campaigns and computational propaganda, this can have an incredibly harmful effect on the kind of content being promoted and the potential for false narratives, conspiracies, and hateful and violence-inducing speech to permeate and dominate campaigns. It is worth examining examples of parties working together to create positive standards for the information environment, as well as interventions for encouraging this kind of environment.

In the first system, parties can develop their own codes, either individually or collectively. One of the better examples of this is the German political parties during the 2017 parliamentary campaign season. Other than the right-wing Alliance for Germany (Afd) party, all of the parties agreed to the non-use of computational propaganda, the spread and endorsement of false narratives, and other tactics. Germany has a regulatory framework in the social media space, linked with EU regulations such as the Global Data Protection Regulation, which provides useful data privacy for European citizens as well as those who simply access European networks. 

In other cases, civil society can work together to induce parties to develop and adhere to codes of practice on disinformation, hate speech, and other information integrity issues. In Brazil, various civil society groups came together in the 2018 election to develop a public code of norms for parties and candidates to follow.  The NãoValeTudo campaign tried to encourage politicians to adopt the motto that "Not everything is acceptable" (Não Vale Tudo), which included not promoting false content, not engaging in false networks or the automating of accounts for false purposes, and other norms to ensure that the campaigns were acting fairly and in line with principles that would encourage an open and fair conversation about policy and society. This was formed by a consortium of groups including fact-checking groups like Aos Fatos, digital rights organizations such as Internet Lab and the Institute of Technology and Equity, and the national association of communications professionals (Associação Brasileira das Agéncias de Comunicaçao – ABRACOM). 

Country Background
Brazil #NãoValeTudo (Not everything is acceptable) is a code of ethics for politicians, civic groups, and parties to follow that was developed during the 2018 Brazilian election cycle. The code focuses on principles around the non-use of computational propaganda techniques such as bot or troll networks, the non-promotion of false claims, transparency around campaign use and non-abuse of private user data, and the promotion of a free and open information space. Politicians and parties could signal their support through social media posts tagging the phrase, which was supported by a wide coalition of CSOs.

The group declared that:

"recent examples concern us, as they indicate that activities such as the collection and misuse of personal data to target advertising, the use of robots and fake profiles to simulate political movements, and positions and methods of disseminating false information can have significant effects on rights of access to information, freedom of expression and association, and privacy of all and all of us. The protection of such rights seems to us to be a premise for technology to be a lever for political discussion and not a threat to the autonomy of citizens to debate about their future."

The group received some endorsements, most notably from presidential candidate Marina De Silva the former Minister of Environment for former President Lula De Silva's past government, and a relatively high-level candidate, who put out social media on her adherence, encouraging others to join. While other local candidates also endorsed them, they did not receive buy-in from others in the presidential race, including the eventual winner, Jair Bolsonaro. Nonetheless, they created a platform for discussion of disinformation issues and the acceptability of certain online tactics in the online sphere through the #NãoValeTudo hashtag and other methods, while also raising general awareness of these threats and highlighting how reluctant many campaigns and politicians were to embrace them. This methodology could be replicated by other civil society groups to develop standards for parties, call out those who break the rules, and raise awareness among the general public. 

In a third form, international coalitions have worked together to form normative frameworks.  Ahead of the 2019 Argentine Elections, in cooperation with Argentina's Council on Foreign Relations (CARI: Consejo Argentino para las Relaciones Internacionales) and organized by the National Electoral Council (CNE: Cámara Nacional Electoral), the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, the Annenberg Foundation, and International IDEA developed an Ethical Digital Commitment "with the aim of avoiding the dissemination of fake news and other mechanisms of disinformation that may negatively affect the elections.." Hosted by the CNE, parties; representatives of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp; organizations of media, and internet and technology professionals signed this Commitment. Parties and other organizations would help to both implement and provide oversight for it.  These approaches show practical, often multisectoral, approaches and collaboration between public, private, and political sectors, in addition to civil society, on these issues, following similar efforts by election management bodies in Indonesia and South Africa, as explained in the EMB section.

Similar, earlier codes have focused on hateful or dangerous speech in addition to other elections-related commitments, such as agreeing to accept a result. One such example developed in Nigeria ahead of its 2015 elections is how the presidential candidates pledged to avoid violent or inciting speech in the so-called "Abuja  Accord", developed with support from the international community and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. This represented a particular effort to protect the rights of marginalized groups to participate in the electoral process and "to refrain from campaigns that will involve religious incitement, ethnic or tribal profiling both by ourselves and by all agents acting in our names. " In an effort more focused on information integrity itself, the Transatlantic Commission on Election Integrity, a group made up of a "bi-partisan group of political, tech, business and media leaders", developed The Pledge for Election Integrity for candidates of any country to sign. Its principles are outlined in the highlight box to the right.

The pledge has gained over 170 signatories in Europe, Canada, and the United States, and also has the potential to expand to other contexts. A commission named for the late Kofi Annan, former head of the UN, also endorsed the pledge, suggesting that it could be translated for other contexts: "We endorse the call by the Transnational Commission on Election Integrity for political candidates, parties, and groups to sign pledges to reject deceptive digital campaign practices. Such practices include the use of stolen data or materials, the use of manipulated imagery such as shallow fakes, deep fakes, and deep nudes, the production, use, or spread of falsified or fabricated materials, and collusion with foreign governments and their agents who seek to manipulate the election."  Nonetheless, with any of these pledges there remain challenges of enforcement and wide-ranging acceptance among political candidates, especially in polarized or deeply contested environments. Standards development in this area remains a challenge, but a potentially critical mechanism for building trust in candidates, parties, and overall democratic political systems.

Footnotes

5. Neudert, Lisa-Maria N. “Computational Propaganda in Germany: A Cautionary Tale,” 2017., 20. https://blogs.oii.ox.ac.uk/politicalbots/wp-content/uploads/sites/89/2017/06/Comprop-Germany.pdf

6. For more details see McLoughlin, Frank. “Prioritizing Justice: Electoral Justice in Conflict-Affected Countries and Countries in Political Transition.” International IDEA, 2016, page 16

7. The Report of the Kofi Annan Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age https://fsi-live.s3.us-west-1.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/kofi-annan-protecting-electoral-integrity.pdf