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Communications in the Age

of Fake News

A Crisis Handbook for Election Commissions


Spreading disinformation breeds confusion and distrust and undermines our democratic process. Of course, propaganda is not new. The term “fake news” did not suddenly spring up during the 2015 US presidential campaign. Fake news is not a new idea; it’s been around for as long as human beings have used the spoken word to communicate. But the ease of use and the reach of social media put tremendous power and influence at the fingertips of anyone who chooses to use it – for good or bad.

There are many people, foreign and domestic, who exploit media to gain power, discredit ideas, weaken competition or destroy adversaries – all with the touch of a button. But the power of information doesn’t have to be controlled by those who would use it for nefarious purposes. Technology is also a formidable tool for disseminating truth. Media can be used to advance discourse that promotes fact over fiction, reason over fear. Right makes might.

Two arenas that are particularly vulnerable to disinformation are the election process and election systems. In recent years, bad actors have systematically disseminated lies in order to undermine elections by inciting fear, anxiety and distrust among voters. The responsibility of election officials has always been administering and protecting the integrity of the voting process. Now the threat to legitimate elections is compounded by the endless promotion of false information spread by those seeking to influence election outcomes. It is no longer enough for election officials to smartly and competently administer elections. They must also manage the information flow about elections. They must fight fake news.

With our extensive background assisting election officials around the world, we’ve acquired considerable experience in addressing the growing trend of disseminating disinformation that threatens to undermine the work of election officials – and delegitimize America’s government by the people. We’ve created this handbook as a planning tool and guide to aid election officials in countering false information and protecting the integrity of the election process in jurisdictions across the United States.

—The Smartmatic Team

Table of Contents


Chapter 1
How False Information Impacts the Work of Election Management Bodies

Chapter 2
A Five-step Crisis Communications Guide

Step 1 – Audit the Context
Step 2 – Develop a Crisis Communications Plan
Step 3 – Prepare in Advance
Step 4 – Taking Action In a Crisis
Step 5 – Post-election Evaluation

Chapter 3
Final Recommendations


Graphic depicting eight of ten people

FACT: 8 in 10 Americans say that the news media are critical or very important to our democracy.

Source: 2018 American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy – Gallup/Knight Foundation


Elections are pressure-packed, time-limited events with high stakes. They are the bedrock of democracy. Reliable and actionable information from election authorities during an election is critical to voter confidence and voter turnout. Many factors can raise communications to a crisis level – long lines, voting machine breakdowns, accusations of fraud and more.

Election-related fake news – misleading or false information based on creating, promoting or sharing false facts and a false narrative – can ignite or aggravate a communications crisis during and immediately following an election. Such a communications crisis could significantly diminish the reputation and trust placed by individuals in an Election Management Body (EMB).1

Having an easy-to-follow guide to combat fake news and prevent a communications crisis is a must for today’s election officials. It saves time, strengthens leadership, offers a sense of readiness to act, helps build trust in election authorities and most of all, protects election integrity.

During the 2016 presidential elections in the United States, the fake news phenomenon became a pressing issue of global significance. The potential influence of election misinformation and disinformation2 in the voting process presented EMBs with the need to be proactive, prepared and responsive. Therefore, the purpose of this handbook is to provide EMBs with a communications road map to avert and combat fake news while offering useful and reliable sources for information.

A crisis communications management approach recognizes the urgency of engaging quickly and forcefully in order to curtail the effects of false information, and to provide fact-based clarity to individuals who have been the targets of disinformation. It brings together voters, candidates, and organizations during the crisis and provides them with supportable facts that they need to make informed decisions and to respond to falsehoods.

Communications experts agree that having a well-developed crisis communications plan is critical to managing a crisis if and when it happens. The exchange of information that occurs within and between authorities, organizations, media, as well as interested individuals and groups, before, during and after an election should be regularly monitored, fact-checked and shared. This helps to counter disinformation and prevent a communications crisis, or may mitigate its impact if one does materialize.

This handbook includes best practices and guidelines to help EMBs coordinate their internal and external communications response to a potential crisis caused by misinformation or disinformation in the press and on social networks during an election cycle.

Chapter One offers a brief perspective on how fake news can negatively impact elections, the EMB’s work and the importance of public trust. It provides the foundation for understanding the practical applications outlined in the following chapters.

Chapter Two offers a practical guide to creating a crisis communications plan to address false information that can compromise an election.

Chapter Three provides final recommendations on managing the flow of information and evaluating an election authority’s performance during a crisis.

Disinformation: false information that is deliberately created or disseminated with the express purpose to cause harm. Producers of disinformation typically have political, financial, psychological or social motivations.

Misinformation: information that is false, but not intended to cause harm. For example, individuals who don’t know a piece of information is false may spread it on social media in an attempt to be helpful.2

  1. The Election Management Body (EMB) is the authority charged with administering the election process. Due to the complexity and extraordinary skills necessary for election management, a specific agency to be responsible for managing election activities is necessary. Such bodies have a variety of forms and sizes, with several titles which include Electoral Management Body (EMB), Electoral Commission, Electoral Council, Electoral Unit, Department of Elections, Electoral Board, etc.
  2. Definitions according to “Information Disorder: The Essential Glossary” (By Claire Wardle, with research support from Grace Greason, Joe Kerwin & Nic Dias, July 2018)