The different faces of electoral disinformation

The diagnosis is clear: both the media and electoral experts have agreed that, after the legislative elections of 13 March, confidence in the Colombian electoral system is currently going through its worst crisis of legitimacy in decades. Questions have been raised from all sides about what happened on 13 March and, especially, about the enormous difference between the results of the pre-count and the count. This has created a perfect scenario for rumours and misinformation to creep into the legitimate doubts of politicians, journalists and citizens alike, less than a week before the presidential elections.

In order to navigate this panorama, in this blog post we present a typology of electoral disinformation that allows us to better situate the risk posed by certain content and what it implies for the perception of legitimacy of the electoral process in the run-up to the first round. We close with some recommendations for civil society organisations on how to deal with this situation and what to do about electoral disinformation.

The 2020 elections in the United States left a series of lessons on how to understand the circulation of electoral disinformation: its types and characteristic dynamics. Among the multiple fraud narratives that circulated on social networks and in the media related to absentee voting, electronic voting and conspiracy theories promoted by QAnon - all underpinned by the claims of fraud made by then President Donald Trump, the corollary of which was the insurrection on Capitol Hill on 6 January 2021 - we can extract some key points to categorise electoral disinformation.

The work done by the Election Integrity Partnership, on which we draw for this typology, was instrumental in identifying the most dangerous type of problematic information during elections: that which seeks to delegitimise electoral processes. In this sense, we define electoral disinformation as any false or misleading information about electoral processes that directly affects the exercise of the right to vote . For example, the claim -already present in previous elections- that the pens provided at the polling stations are erasable can affect citizens' intention to vote, as they distrust, in this case, the materials used in the electoral process. We also used this typology to study the rules of the platforms to deal with this type of content. You can consult this study here.

Disinformation specifically affecting the right to vote can be categorised into four types:

  1. Misdirected content and misinformation

Publications containing false information on voting dates and locations, vote counting processes or the requirements for a person to be elected. In the aforementioned discrepancy between the pre-count and the scrutiny data, there were several voices calling for a general recount of votes based on inaccurate information. According to the regulations in force in Colombia, this procedure is not possible. However, these assertions ended up undermining the legitimacy of the counting process.

  1. Interference or intimidation in electoral processes

Content that affects voter turnout by discouraging voters from going to the polls or inciting them to disrupt the electoral process. An example of this would be the claim that one of the polling stations is a Covid-19 epicentre.

  1. Motivation for electoral fraud

Content that incites citizens to engage in actions directly related to electoral offences, such as postings that incite fraud, such as tampering with E-14 forms, vote buying or illegal participation in elections.

  1. Delegitimisation of processes or outcomes

Content in which a candidate claims victory while ignoring the official election results, or claims that the results have been altered. After the 13 March elections, several publications were made in this sense, such as this one and this one.

To address this phenomenon and prepare ourselves as civil society for the presidential elections, we formulate a series of recommendations that organisations can adopt to avoid falling prey to attempts to manipulate the digital public debate with this type of disinformation:

  • Analysis of the digital conversation shows that the partisan narrative of 'us' versus 'them' is sucking all the oxygen out of the conversation about elections. In the absence of institutional voices that help - and can - mediate in this environment of distrust towards the electoral process, there is an opportunity for civil society organisations with experience in monitoring democratic processes.
  • One of the big problems was the confusion - deliberate and accidental - of thinking that the "factual truth" was determined in the pre-count. By now, all actors and disseminators of information should be clear about the role of this stage and how it differs from the scrutiny. Organisations that work in democratic consolidation processes in the territories, or that are recognised for their fight for transparency and against corruption, would be recognised voices to educate about the milestones of the electoral process. This implies being clear about the facts and timing in order to avoid amplifying misinformation and confusing messages. 
  • In the case of fact-checking organisations, there is an opportunity to analyse the kind of messages about fraud (such as invisible ink) that have already been disseminated on networks in Colombia by key accounts of political party leaders. It is also possible to pick up indications of coordinated actions. This would make it possible to anticipate in some way - with counter-narratives, pedagogical content and warnings - problematic publications and attempts at manipulation that we will encounter in the first and second presidential rounds. 
  • For newsrooms, the goal must be to navigate between providing easy answers and ignoring problems. As Amanda Ripley says in an article published in Solutions Journalism, the media should try to help people get in and out of the mud with their humanity intact. While it may sound counter-intuitive, the best way to achieve this is by making narratives more complex. Key to this is to seek out and amplify the contradictions, nuances and ambiguities associated with fraud: to show the tensions with all their layers of complexity. In addition, one must broaden the perspective: listen better to the people, go beyond the immediate story and questions, and try to understand the motivations and reasons behind dissatisfaction with the electoral system, which are often deeper than they appear.