Disinformation is false information meant to cause harm, and misinformation is false information that might adversely affect individuals, organizations or movements, though not deliberately. The spread of both forms of false information in the digital political sphere, and more prominently before and during elections, can have a negative impact on election systems, management and the integrity of results as well as confidence in Election Management Bodies (EMBs).
The creation and dissemination of misinformation, disinformation, propaganda, and hoaxes has increased profusely in the last decade through the internet and social media. Digital platforms not only provide a medium for spreading fake news, but offer tools to actively promote dissemination, making false or misleading content go viral quickly.
Because of heightened interest in outcomes, election periods are a ripe environment for internet trolls or other bad actors to incubate, test and share false and polarizing stories intended to deceive or influence readers.
Recent studies (Guess, Nyhan & Reifler, 2018) suggest that fake news as a viral phenomenon during election time “…reflects the potential for people on the extremes to be trapped in echo chambers that aren’t just reinforcing their opinions but providing them with false and misleading factual claims that seem to reinforce those opinions.”
Correspondingly, “The science of fake news” report (Lazer et al., 2018) analyzes why “people prefer information that confirms their preexisting attitudes (selective exposure), view information consistent with their preexisting beliefs as more persuasive than dissonant information (confirmation bias) and are inclined to accept information that pleases them (desirability bias).” This explains why voters may be receptive to fake news and why individual biases might prevent acceptance of fact-checking of a given election-related fake news story.
Thus, the power and influence of misinformation makes it all the more important for EMBs to combat fake news and ensure that voters have correct, fact-based information readily available to them.
According to political scientist and elections expert, Brendan Nyhan, “fake news and bots can mislead and polarize citizens, undermine trust in the media, and distort the content of public debate.” This view is also supported in a 2017 study by Allcott and Gentzkow that concluded, “…exposure to [fake news] or similarly dubious and inflammatory content can undermine the quality of public debate, promote misperceptions, foster greater hostility toward political opponents, and corrode trust in government and journalism.”
The consequences of continuous exposure to, and consumption of, misinformation and disinformation from social media, political websites or news outlets during an election cycle directly impact voting integrity and public trust in candidates and results. It also adversely affects the ability of EMBs to effectively manage an election, as well as commissions’ reputations.
EMBs are responsible for ensuring the integrity of elections, which can be undermined by false information. They should be prepared to address the impact election-related false information can have through a comprehensive crisis communications plan, just as they would prepare to manage other types of crises, such as natural disasters, cyber intrusions or election violence.
Source: 2018 American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy – Gallup/Knight Foundation