With more and more media literacy projects making their way into the mainstream today, it is widely recognized that it is essential to have the skills to navigate the informational landscape of today. Still, interest in the impacts of disinformation regularly peaks around the time of elections - it happens both with professionals and with everyday people. Blame it on the connections we have made since 2016, when 'fake news' became the buzzword of the US electoral cycle and then entered the basic vocabulary of the average person. No surprise then that it became the word of the year for 2017 and “disinformation” followed one year later.

Disinformation campaigns during elections

There is a link we have forged between the idea of disinformation and elections - be it direct or indirect, via the influence said link carries. With European Parliament elections coming up in a couple of months, it is a great moment to discuss the implications of disinformation in such a special context, ways to position ourselves and what special precautions one can take.

I previously mentioned the 2016 US election; remember the discussion on foreign interference, how frivolous the concept of "fake news" was used and how Russian propaganda has influenced the results and the name of the President of the US. In 2020, the public was more aware of the implications and the conversation around electoral disinformation Click here to enter text.shifted towardClick here to enter text. the outcome - see the whole context in which the storming of the Capitol took place. We might think that these happenings are in the past and that we are more aware than ever before, thus more prepared, if not immune, to what might come our way. Social media platforms are more involved than before in countering disinformation, at least in the mechanisms and flags they have set in place, such as Meta’s third party fact-checking mechanism. Europeans have spent the last two years being aware of not only the Russian ground invasion in Ukraine, but also of its corresponding (dis)informational campaign. This has opened our eyes to the direct interference of Russia in our day to day lives, but has also made us all chronically aware on malign influences on our political and media landscape. With the far right on the rise on a continental scale, the upcoming EP elections represent a fertile ground for a push for nationalistic, anti-Westers, anti-EU voices to take over. The steaks are highClick here to enter text. and we can learn from the recent past.

What can we do as voters?

First of all, be aware of amplified narratives that you have already encountered in the past. Topics such as the EU “infringements” on individual liberties through the Greed Deal, the incorrect understanding of the concepts such as of a 15-minute-city, anti-LGBTQ+ narratives, a plethora of Ukraine-related disinformation and even COVID-19 "discoveries'' are examples that have excellent potential to overtake public discourse, even under the same form as before. Look for reliable sources and fact-checking platforms that have previously debunked them. Be aware of any claim that sounds too scary, too out of place or too absurd and look into them - remember to ask yourself questions such as "does this make me foster very intense feelings, especially of anger or dead?" or "Who would actually benefit from this?", especially when discussing such topics with others.

Secondly, keep in mind that previous elections are a good starting point to assess disinformation for the upcoming ones, but technology has advanced exponentially in the last few years. Making a deep fake video is easier than ever before and more accessible than it was even just one year ago. Virtually anyone can make any politician say anything with minimum effort and tech skills. One can keep an eye out for visual cues, such as abnormal mouth movement or questionable intonation of the voice; nonetheless, the message is the key - look into how it fits into the general discourse of the individual. Would it be likely or not so much that President Zelensky would tell Ukrainians to surrender? Would the Romanian Minister of Finance be “shocked” by how big the return rate for an online platform is or should we take a video claiming so with a grain of salt?

Thirdly, be aware of a special brand of disinformation that is directly linked to elections: claiming they were rigged or even stolen. One party or politician can even lay the ground by making claims such as "the electoral law/process is faulty by design to either steal votes from me or to allow the opposition to contest the results if I win". Or, as a continuation of the aforementioned deep fake impact, maybe one candidate can “admit” to rigging the elections just a few days prior to the ballots. Messages such as these undermine not only the results of the elections and give the contesting part a blank check to twist and recontextualize the results however they see fit, but it casts a shadow on the legitimacy of the voting process and, by extension, to the entire political infrastructure of the state. Especially in countries where trust in state institutions is already low or declining, such narratives can have a domino effect and legitimize the accusing party for a portion of the audience.

Good practice examples: information hygiene

While these are general considerations that might aid someone with a pre-existing foundation in understanding disinformation, some more concrete examples are needed, especially in the context of elections. Before listing interventions that have proven helpful in the past, one should perhaps look into a recent, tangible example of best practice that ended in a win for democracy - the elections in Taiwan. AP has dedicated a great analysis on the topic, and I would like to highlight a couple of aspects we, as Europeans, can relate to.

First and foremost, we have to take disinformation threats seriously; just because we’ve heard it a million times before, it doesn’t mean we are now immune, on an individual or state level. If we are aware there is malicious intent by some other state behind narratives circulation in the informational space, we should take the threat seriously. Let’s look into a narrative that has been circulated in Taiwan prior to the elections: the progressive party in charge will cast the country into a war it can’t win, against a more powerful state that has made previous claims on its territory. In the case of Taiwan, China is the aforementioned neighbor - but swap the countries for Moldova and the Russian Federation, respectively, and you’ll notice the very same narrative being circulated for decades now. Going back to the basics for a second: disinformation thrives on strong negative emotions, especially on what makes people angry or scared; now, wouldn’t you be angry to learn the frightening “truth” that your democratically elected leader wants to throw the country into war, just because of some trivial ambitions?

Then, Taiwan’s cautionary tale centers around media literacy and sustained efforts stretching over years; Eve Chiu, the editor-in-chief of Taiwan’s FactCheck Center, a nonprofit journalism organization, draws a parallel between sorting waste and media literacy - back in the day, we didn’t bother to throw soda cans and papers in separate containers, but we understand the implications and we now do it out of reflex.

As civil society organizations, there are a number of tried and tested methods we can employ to helping the public before the elections:

  • The public is more eager during these circumstances to hear about disinformation; you can try any approach that best fits your audience, from teaching your audience how to do some debunking on their own to observing trends in disinformation and making them aware of new and subtle ways in which it might target them.

  • On the same line, with a more interested public, it could prove useful to not only preach informational hygiene, but to actively engage your public when doing so. Remember, people get tired quickly and informational fatigue is a real, documented condition that “dampens [people's] abilities and motivations for message elaboration”. Thus, only preaching to them might even yield disengagement and indifference. Try and include your public in your countering disinformation efforts - it helps your organization build closer ties to its audience and people learn much better by doing.

  • Building on the aforementioned informational fatigue, try new formats and clearly mark the context and its importance. Abstract concepts and ideals, such as the fight for democracy, can sometimes be too out of reach, thus more concrete milestones can be employed. We might take some contextual information for granted (for example, what can one MEP do for their voters), while the public might have a vague guess on what the position entails. At Funky Citizens, we have employed a mixed approach for the last local elections, which allowed us to inform the public on the electoral program of different candidates, but to include information on what the position they were running for (mayor) would actually allow them to do. Another format we use during the electoral campaign is live fact-checking; checkathons are a great format for those heated debates, a high-intensity session of live debunking that uses a great deal of resources, but brings along visibility and engagement.

No matter how much you wish to get involved, as an activist or as a regular citizen, please be aware that this is not a drill: disinformation peaks during elections, for the stakes are high. Consequently, one must be even more vigilant than usual and should spread awareness on the topic and its implications. Ideally, it would happen in a friendly, empathic and mutual framework that would foster constructive dialogue. If you need to preach, do so as a friend, not a teacher - we’re in this together and the results of the upcoming elections will impact us all for the next five years.

Background Image by: Oleg Laptev via Unsplash

Author: Laura Burtan

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This article was published in partnership with Funky Citizens