Election in times of disinformation

13 Nov 2020 12:20h - 13:50h

Event report

Co-moderated by Mr Mehdi Benchelah (Senior Project Officer, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)) and Mr Valdemar Satoshi Rojle Christensen (Consultant, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)), the session focused on the effect of disinformation on the election process.

In his introductory address, Mr Guy Berger (Director, Freedom of Expression and Media Development, UNESCO) identified significant challenges associated with disinformation during the election process. Disinformation is employed for various purposes: to fundraise, set agendas, directly impact public opinion, suppress the voting of particular groups, but also to discredit the whole process.

Balancing between freedom of expression and integrity of elections   

In an attempt to respond to challenges posed by disinformation, but at the same time protect the freedom of expression, Berger referred to a recent study by UNESCO that identifies five different responses: (a) the regulation and self-regulation of companies providing social media services; (b) adequate fact-checking responses; (c) media and information literacy; (d) collaborative media responses; and (e) ethical responses that include a code of conduct among political actors to refrain from using disinformation and to be held accountable if they use them. All these are seen as important contributors to managing the sensitive balance.

Ms Sarah Lister (Head of Governance, UNDP) also addressed the problems associated with disinformation, but noted that the progress in tackling them should not be underestimated. She made reference to fact-checking services that promote greater awareness, as well as greater cooperation between social media platforms and electoral management bodies, which both lead to a better understanding of available options to combat disinformation. Long-term literacy campaigns are equally important and, according to Lister, can lead to dividends well beyond elections.

The evolving landscape

Ms Laura Zommer (Executive and Editor-in-Chief, Chequeado) highlighted that the disinformation landscape today includes celebrities, influencers, as well as every citizen that has thousands of followers. They can all be taking part in disinformation campaigns without even knowing it.

Zommer also refers to the underlying setbacks in tackling disinformation. Fact-checkers are not able to assess every piece of disinformation; therefore, we need both media literacy among the audience, and the technology to quickly identify disinformation.

Ms Mathilde Vougny (Electoral Conflict Prevention Specialist, UNDP) brought into the discussion a geographical dimension. She noted that in the past, ethnic tension between local groups would rarely expand and escalate to regional and national issues that everybody discusses. However, with the new information landscape, this has changed, as illustrated by the example of Ethiopia.

Moreover, the rapidly evolving online environment, which brings new ways to distribute misinformation, makes the current understanding of the dynamics considerably difficult. ‘We are always one step behind,’ Vougny remarked. She also noted that conducting elections in the COVID-19 environment only adds an extra layer in terms of how disinformation is transmitted.

Similarly, Mr Souhaieb Khayati (Director, North Africa Bureau) emphasised that even professional journalists and media outlets face many difficulties to cover election campaigns. This is to a significant extent attributable to the use of social media by many candidates to spread fake news and disinformation. Nevertheless, he remained adamant that, despite setbacks, quality journalism remains the only alternative to disinformation.

Another critical challenge to curbing disinformation is the fact that different social media platforms use different rules. Mr William Bird (Director, Media Monitoring Africa) noted that while on one platform a particular kind of disinformation may be removed, the same information can be allowed on another platform, making identification and combating of false information much harder.

Bird also made reference to two other major contributors to the spread of disinformation – politicians and senior leaders who spread false information, as well as systemic attacks on the media that undermine media freedom and the ability of journalists to report.

A coordinated effort is key

The speakers agreed that tackling the issue of disinformation requires coordination and cooperation between stakeholders.

To this end, Vougny referred to the importance of having agile channels of communication and coordination mechanisms at the national level, so that, for instance, all actors involved in monitoring and fact-checking can coordinate their activities with institutional actors.

Bird also underlined that neither electoral management bodies nor social media platforms could address these issues on their own. Such an attempt requires a multistakeholder approach.