The global rise of electoral disinformation

December 2020
 by Carys Whomsley

The global rise of electoral disinformation

December 2020
 By Carys Whomsley

Disinformation campaigns have been a notable feature of recent political elections, facilitated by the use of social media and the Internet. While recent information that we have consumed may make it seem like a modern phenomenon foreign electoral interference, both covert and overt, has a long history. As far back as 1796, a decree by the French ambassador to the US ordered the French Navy to restrict America’s trade with Europe the month before a presidential election. More recently, historian Doy H Levin believes that the US and Russia have intervened in a combined 117 elections around the world between 1946 and 2000 – deploying public threats, promises, secret financial assistance and campaign support.

Disinformation and electoral integrity worldwide

Although it provides some of the most high-profile recent examples, the USA is far from the only victim of modern-day foreign electoral disinformation. It is a global issue, by no means limited to the largest or most politically powerful democracies. According to studies undertaken by the V-Dem institute in 2019, the democracies most targeted in 2018 through foreign government-led disinformation campaigns were Taiwan, Latvia, Hungary, Kosovo, Georgia, Venezuela, the USA, Ukraine and Tajikistan. While this includes online and offline operations, most of the dissemination tends to occur online, much of which is propagated through covert social media campaigns. Other victims have included Estonia, Bhutan, Israel, Cyprus, the UK, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Mongolia, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, Moldova, Macedonia, Columbia and Kyrgyzstan. Of these, eight are younger democracies from the former Soviet Bloc.

Is social media to blame for the acceptance of disinformation?

It is true that social media has enabled false assertions to be distributed rapidly, with an authoritative and professional appearance, and at low cost. But this is by no means the only factor contributing to the increasing acceptance of disinformation. For disinformation related to electoral campaigns to succeed, people must be willing to accept it as truth. Crucially, the legitimacy of democratic institutions is currently being called into question by citizens of established democratic states – for a host of economic and social reasons.

In his recent book ‘Head, Hand, Heart – the Struggle for Dignity in the 21st Century’, David Goodhart maps out divisions in the UK between the ‘anywheres’ and the ‘somewheres’, the graduates and the non-graduates, the nationalists and global citizens, the divisions between those who work with ‘the hand, the heart and the head’. Political views and levels of trust in institutions are determined by tribal loyalties as much as by rational debate and fact, and liberal democracies have recently seen increases in political polarisation.

Social media does not always plant initial doubts about political candidates or parties, or even about democracy itself, in people’s minds. What it can do is exploit existing feelings of dissent and perpetuate them through the spread of disinformation on its platforms, providing content that corroborates and appears to validate tribal viewpoints.

Measuring the immeasurable

There is no easy measure to determine the extent to which a disinformation campaign has succeeded in changing the views and actions of those who have been exposed to it. Speaking of Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, former CIA and NSA director Michael V Hayden claimed the impact was “not just unknown, it’s unknowable”.

There are many contributing factors that work together to influence the success of such attacks, including the political culture, the depth of democratic tradition, the quality and professionalism of local media, the reaction of politicians, and ease of access to the Internet.

There have been several studies tracking changes in voter intention across small samples of the population that may indicate larger tendencies occurring nationally. One example comes from Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who conducted a retrospective study of the 2016 US presidential elections, analysing the events that caused a decline in intention to vote for Hillary Clinton. She found that the largest decline rates could be tracked to two specific campaigns, both traced back to Russia’s Internet Research Agency (later indicted for their role in Russian electoral interference in the US elections). From her study, Jamieson posits that the effect of Russian intervention was significant enough to impact the ultimate outcome.

Another study, this time by the University of Mannheim on 1,000 subjects in the months leading up to the 2017 federal elections in Germany, went further in establishing whether disinforming news spread online influences vote outcome.

Respondents were exposed to both verifiably true news, and also disinforming news, throughout the study, and were asked to assess the truthfulness of the content on a scale. Their belief in the news was subsequently measured against their previous knowledge of the story, trust in traditional news media, trust in the political system, voting intention and vote choice.

The researchers found that there was an essential tendency in some members of the study group to believe disinformation, and that this was concentrated in specific population groups in which people had existing low levels of trust in traditional news media or the country’s political system. What mattered far more than the volume of disinformation people were exposed to, was this tendency to believe disinformation and allow it to influence their voting decisions.

Minimising the impact of disinformation campaigns

In the run-up to France’s 2017 election, hacked emails emerged containing fabricated documents purportedly evidencing tax evasion and electoral fraud carried out by presidential candidate Macron and his campaign team. Macron’s team responded quickly and decisively. The leaks were attributed to Russia, and their appearance online was immediately met with a statement by France’s electoral regulatory body, warning the media against publishing them. The warnings were adhered to, and although 18,000 bots (automated programmes to propagate the information) were deployed to push hashtags relating to the leaks, these failed to produce significant public discussion. By responding rapidly and decisively to the threat of a disinformation campaign against them, the Macron team enabled its impact to be minimised.

Is electoral disinformation here to stay?

The capacity for disinformation to be influential in shaping elections is largely determined by the willingness of participants to believe it is true. This is influenced by the level of social and political cohesion within societies, and feelings of alienation from the consensus norms and expectations. With such fractures in society widening, disinformation in elections is likely to continue to increase. The ability of political candidates to respond to such disinformation will be crucial in minimising its impact. With presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place in Kosovo, Israel, Cyprus, and Bulgaria in 2021, these will be the territories to watch.

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