Beware of Disinformation That Puts Democracy on the Line
Local and international democracy coalitions must raise the stakes on the tactical use of disinformation to undermine trust in elections.
by Kyle Lemargie, IFES' Senior Global Adviser on Democratic Resilience and Innovation
As Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador spins disinformation in his attempts to reduce the budget and mandate of the country’s Instituto Nacional Electoral—one of the world’s most respected election management bodies—it’s not hard to turn to Mexico’s neighbors to see a similar pattern of disinformation pointed at the election institutions and processes themselves.
To the north, rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol in 2021. Two years later, to the south, it was Brazil’s government buildings. The riots ensued after the incumbent presidents lost and spread disinformation about the integrity of the elections. In both cases, narratives aimed at fomenting doubt in the system had been planted well in advance of the election as a hedge against a potential loss.
As a growing collection of similar episodes worldwide illustrate, election integrity disinformation can be seeded long before election day and repurposed once election results are released, or seized on by policymakers between elections as an excuse for anti-competitive reforms to the election process. By undermining load-bearing elements of the electoral architecture, such false narratives and their narrators risk destabilizing democracy itself.
The importance of hedge trimming
Investors often use hedging strategies to cushion their exposure to various forms of risk. Candidates in elections employ their own hedges. An increasingly popular one is creating and sharing false narratives about the integrity of the electoral process, its management and voting infrastructure before election day. False accusations, faulty or mis-contextualized evidence, conspiracies, and baseless but damaging claims of “we’ve heard this, hope it isn’t true!” are spread through interconnected social media, traditional media and group messaging channels. This degradation of the election information environment sows doubt and preconditions public support for a possible fight in the courts, or on the streets, if the candidate or party in question is dealt a loss at the polls.
Manufactured integrity attacks are increasingly sophisticated and are starting earlier in the election process – a “lie early and often” approach that is insidious and difficult to counter. But the capacity to effectively counter these hedges is critical to maintaining democratic resilience. Election managers, civil society organizations, and their international partners are in a race to respond with new strategic communications and networking approaches.
As election integrity disinformation is appearing earlier and earlier in the election process, “pre-bunking” efforts to desensitize the public must also be accelerated – requiring that election managers and policymakers be increasingly proactive in their risk analysis and planning. Research has shown that segments of the public targeted by disinformation are much more likely to engage with pre-bunking and de-bunking messages if the messengers are respected and trusted voices from within their communities. Thus, countering disinformation requires not only more advanced media monitoring and social listening capabilities, but also partnerships with civil society, as well as proactive media and community outreach practices that few election management bodies are yet explicitly mandated, sufficiently resourced or accustomed to performing.
The battle against electoral integrity disinformation is proving increasingly dire outside the campaign period. As election results are released in the hours and days after polling closes, sore loser episodes are more likely to emerge where integrity disinformation has already gained traction. Examples include the shocking displays of uncivil disobedience that followed the announcement of U.S. 2020 and Brazil’s 2022 election results. In these cases, unsuccessful candidates and ardent supporters exercised their hedge: they wove narratives of doubt incubated during the campaign period into new narratives questioning the validity of the result. The manufactured electoral integrity attacks inspired violent (in the U.S. deadly) riots and attacks on public institutions, threatening to undermine the legitimacy of both election outcomes. While these attempts ultimately failed to overturn democratic transfers of power, they have further entrenched polarization and stoked a residual, toxic perception among significant portions of the electorate that the elections were rigged.
Between these two cases, the world also witnessed the extreme sore loser case of conservative military elites in Myanmar. A consecutive landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in Myanmar’s 2020 general election triggered a reversal in which the election outcome—and a decade of democratic opening—was abruptly upended in the February 1, 2021 military coup. The coup makers manufactured electoral integrity disinformation as justification for their action claiming mass voter fraud without evidence and foreign interference, scapegoating election officials several of whom were imprisoned and forced to sign confessions in order to be released over a year later. These officials were replaced with regime-friendly appointments such as the Chairperson who was in charge of the widely discredited 2010 elections and who will oversee the sham elections being planned for later this year.
The autocratic military junta claims adherence to the constitution and electoral laws but flouts them to justify actions of self-interest. Due to a new Party Registration Law issued by the EMB in January 2022, main opposition and minority parties will be unable to contest at the national level. Voters will most likely boycott the poll as part of the ongoing resistance movement. The military junta purports to ASEAN and other neighbors like China and India that these sham elections will increase electoral integrity, and bring stability and normalcy, but this is misleading and is much more likely to plunge the country into protracted conflict and misery.
The insider threat of empowered disinformants
Where there are fierce competitions and motivated competitors, there may also be sore winners. In contrast to sore losers of elections, aggrieved or opportunistic winners sometimes employ tactical disinformation to achieve their objectives – often to consolidate their power and remove barriers to prolonged incumbency. The democratic erosion threat posed by duly elected leaders cannot be discounted at a time when a record number of countries are autocratizing.
The danger in these cases arises when the elected officials begin using their law-making, regulatory or budgeting powers to “fix” fabricated or deeply exaggerated electoral integrity problems. Ironically, the solutions put forward in response can have the actual effect of diminishing electoral integrity.
More broadly, such politically expedient or self-serving initiatives often drain strength and dynamism from the democratic system, diminishing its ability to withstand future political shocks. Examples abound: from attempts to re-centralize power by reverting to indirect local elections; to attempts to roll back election technologies and political finance frameworks that limit opportunities for malfeasance; to attempts to politicize and weaken the election management bodies and electoral justice institutions that will referee and adjudicate future contests.
In a particularly poignant example, Mexico’s Instituto Nacional Electoral (INE) is in a fight for its future. Last November, tens of thousands of Mexican citizens gathered under the banner “the INE is not to be touched” to protest a package of reforms that would have increased executive influence in the selection process for INE officials. Failing to overcome opposition to the original legislation, President Obrador is now proposing a watered-down but still highly damaging legislative package known as “plan B” that would see the INE significantly reduced in structure, budget and mandate. In a January 26 press conference, the President suggested that the INE was enabling ballot box stuffing, falsification of records, and vote buying, declaring “let them fool someone else – we will not allow that any longer.” In a separate press event on the same day, INE Counselor Ciro Murayama Rendón noted that the President’s remarks were an anachronistic description of electoral politics in Mexico’s 1988 elections, and that INE’s current efforts are a fight to keep to authoritarianism in Mexico’s past.
When electoral integrity disinformation gains the platform of high office, and when it is deployed in the period between elections as public interest slumbers, disinformation-fed election reform can be very hard to counter. Within countries experiencing such attacks on election integrity, cross-sector coalitions are needed that can debunk integrity disinformation and fight efforts to undermine the election process. Coalitions must be sufficiently broad, diverse and organized to sound an alarm that is loud and compelling enough to engage the public in safeguarding democracy.
A case for attention and solidarity
There are many different types of disinformation to be reckoned with in elections, but few that pose so great a danger to democracy as electoral integrity disinformation. The destructiveness of this particular strain of disinformation should inspire policy efforts and coordinated action beyond the field of elections, as a core concern and area of practice in strengthening democratic resilience.
Politicians’ use of electoral integrity disinformation as a hedging strategy or a justification for regressive reforms is far too tempting when it comes at little or no real political cost. As an immediate response, more concerted national and international efforts to name and shame these tactics are needed to diminish their utility. Longer term, media literacy programming can increase citizens’ vigilance and skills navigating a polluted information environment. Also, new forms of civic education should not shy away from discussions of democracy’s vulnerabilities, but rather teach citizens to recognize how liberal and democratic processes and institutions come under attack and how democratic publics effectively mobilize to safeguard them. These lessons are already being passed to future generations through brave example. We recognize defenders of democracy in Mexico and Myanmar for their courage and determination. On February 26, concerned Mexican citizens will hold another round of mass protests against the regressive plan B electoral reforms pushed by their president. These demonstrations, now under the banner “my vote is not touched” will be taking place just a month before democracies gather for the second global Summit for Democracy – an opportunity for the democracy defenders globally to show their solidarity.
Kyle Lemargie is the Senior Global Advisor for Democratic Resilience at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES). IFES is dedicated to building resilient democracies that deliver for all.