The global election landscape has been transformed in recent years by digital developments. As people increasingly turn to the internet to consume political news prior to elections, candidates are campaigning to voters in new and innovative ways online. However, the digital domain is also being used to control and manipulate the public in the run-up to elections. In some countries, government control of the media results in a one-sided view of political events. Even more insidiously, the rise of deepfakes has seen candidates slurred by faked images and videos purporting to show them in unfavourable circumstances. With many internet users fooled by disinformation and deepfakes, these methods are becoming powerful tools for those seeking to win elections at all costs.
When governments control the media
In countries without a politically-impartial media environment committed to truth and fact, voters often fail to develop an understanding of how disinformation can be used to manipulate their view of events. This is becoming a major problem in countries with more authoritarian governments seeking to stay in control and win elections.
According to Reporters Without Borders, in Turkey, where President Erdoğan was recently re-elected despite opinion polls consistently showing him trailing opposition candidate Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, 90% of media is under some form of government control. In the recent Turkish election, the country’s media largely favoured the incumbent government’s narrative, for example by legitimising President Erdoğan’s claims that the economic crisis was caused by nefarious foreign influence.
In many countries, fact-checkers take on the important role of verifying media information. This limits disinformation by ensuring stories are only published once they have been verified as true – or at least stating where they remain unverified. But while combatting fake news is crucial to maintaining democracy, its successful implementation requires the support of media organisations, so the public can be informed on what is and isn’t disinformation. However, in the pre-election period in Turkey, fact-checking organisations such as teyit.org were not given sufficient airtime to disseminate their anti-disinformation work.
The collaboration between fact-checkers and mainstream media will be a crucial dynamic in upcoming elections in the US, where a heavily partisan press landscape could lead to similar issues to those seen in Turkey. Europe will also see elections this year, and disinformation may play a role. In Poland, the incumbent Law and Justice Party has progressively gained more control of the media, which could pose risks for the opposition of becoming victims of disinformation. Spain will also go to the polls, in an environment where, according to a recent study, 80% of voters see disinformation as a problem. And for countries such as Slovakia, where the results of the upcoming election will dictate whether the country stands by Ukraine or not, outside manipulation of social media could be an issue.
Twitter takedowns and their affects
Another method for incumbent governments to ensure their narrative reaches the masses (while silencing opposing viewpoints) is by exerting social media control. “Throttling” of access to Twitter and other social media sites, where an internet service provider slows down the speed of the service and renders it unusable, is a technique increasingly used by authoritarian regimes to control internet usage.
There have also been cases where governments have negotiated with Twitter to enact a ban on the accounts of those perceived as a threat. The Turkish government successfully pressured Twitter into restricting content prior to the election this year. The request put Twitter CEO Elon Musk in a quandary – while his stated intention is to make the platform a hub of free speech, he was left with two options, as he explained: “Have Twitter throttled in its entirety or limit access to some tweets”. He begrudgingly complied with the Turkish government’s request, and content was limited.
Having already been subject to throttling from Turkish authorities on previous occasions (following a terrorist attack in Istanbul, and after February’s earthquakes), Twitter had little choice but to take the threat seriously. But by capitulating to the demands of the Turkish government, critics argue there is a risk that a precedent has been set, and such incidents could increase in frequency, with authoritarian governments turning to the threat of a Twitter shutdown as a negotiating tactic to remove subversive accounts.
The rise of deepfakes for political gain
As we reported last year, we are witnessing a rise in the use of deepfakes in the political sphere, including around election campaigns, to propel harmful narratives. Again, the recent Turkish election campaign provides an example. At an Erdoğan rally in Istanbul in May 2023, the President displayed a video that he claimed was an opposition campaign advert. It showed his opponent, Kılıçdaroğlu, standing alongside Murat Karayılan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party, a group recognised as a terrorist organisation. This helped align with Erdoğan’s rhetoric that his opponents were terrorist sympathisers. Although the video was quickly exposed as a fake by fact-checkers, no airtime was given to this correction.
A deepfake video was also behind third-party candidate Muharrem Ince dropping out of the Turkish election race altogether. The video, a sex tape in which he alleged his face was deepfaked onto an existing Israeli pornographic film, was released several days before the election. In his resulting resignation speech he said, “What I’ve seen in the last 45 days, I’ve not come across in the past 45 years”. As technology develops and software enabling people to create false information becomes more accessible, digital deception in the form of deepfakes and disinformation is becoming ever more sophisticated and prevalent. This presents new challenges, both to those trying to counter disinformation, and to those using the internet to seek a true version of events. When combined with the power of authoritarian governments over the media in their countries, and the rise in the use of social media and internet-based news sources, this presents a challenging environment.