Confronting disinformation in the electoral process: A call for coordinated action


UNESCO and UNDP organized a digital workshop on 13 November on Elections in times of disinformation during the 15th Annual Meeting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Centered on the thematic track of ‘Trust’, the online session focused on current trends and aspects of disinformation and their effect on elections and presented good practices to tackle the spread of disinformation in electoral periods, particularly in the context of the global COVID-19 pandemic. The exchanges highlighted the essential role of journalists and electoral stakeholders in ensuring trust during the election process.

The session brought together a panel of experts from various profiles and regions including Laura Zommer, Executive and Editor-in-Chief at Chequeado, a fact-checking network in Latin America, Mathilde Vougny, Programme analyst for the European Commission-UNDP Joint Task Force on Electoral Assistance, Souhaib Khayati, Director of the North African Bureau of Reporters without Borders based in Tunisia, and finally, William Bird, Director of Media Monitoring Africa in South Africa.

We cannot have genuine elections without having a free flow of information. It is an international human right to vote and to guarantee the free expression of the electorate. The problem with disinformation, however, is that these expressions can also undermine the right to vote. This raises the question of what would be legitimate in terms of imparting and receiving such content, in order to protect the right to vote as well as the core of freedom of expression.

Guy Berger, UNESCO's Director for Strategy and Policy

In today’s digitalized world, opportunities to seek, receive and impart information and ideas between citizens, politicians and political parties are unprecedented, with information related to elections flowing faster and easier than ever. Precisely because of this ease of access, and because elections constitute a cornerstone of inclusive governance, electoral processes are particularly vulnerable

Sara Lister, Head of Governance at UNDP

Drawing a contrast with traditional media, the panelists identified three key aspects that pose new challenges to democracies: the expanding volume of information being produced, its geographical scope and reach, and the rapidly changing information landscape. According to Mathilde Vougny, political parties and electoral candidates have adopted new strategies of information dissemination, using novel platforms (like social media and local networks) to amass thousands of followers. Information thus moves from local to national and international news much more rapidly than ever before. William Bird, from Media Monitoring Africa, further highlighted that disinformation today benefits from the widespread use of mobile devices, where micro-targeted political messages have invaded our personal spaces and often undermine trust in the media– thereby creating a conducive environment for disinformation.

The experts also discussed a set of good practices and recommendations to fight the spread of disinformation. While underscoring the importance of agile channels of coordination and communication, especially at the national level, the panelists reinforced the need for media and information literacy for empowering audiences. Laura Zommer provided the example of a successful collaborative project on electoral disinformation, called Reverso, highlighting how over 120 media entities responded to false information with evidence-based facts in the 2019 presidential election in Argentina. Moreover, they notified the authorities of prevailing information gaps in the field and invited them to publish official communications as required. She notably added that while fact-checking and content moderation do not change people’s minds, they do change people’s behavior in deterring them from re-sharing falsehoods.

Souhaib Khayati from Reporters without Borders, drawing from the work on capacity-building among journalists in North Africa, pointed to the central role of ethical and quality journalism in providing an alternative to the viral spread of disinformation by political candidates. The speakers also cautioned against excessively restricting legitimate expression and encouraging a robust public debate through evidence-based content moderation.

Finally, in the context of elections held during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mathilde Vougny said, ‘Trust in the electoral commission is the number one factor of credible elections.’ She also added that the ongoing pandemic adds an extra layer of required information, that must be communicated efficiently and accurately by public authorities, without which the pandemic will create further opportunities for people to plant disinformation and disrupt the electoral process.

This workshop was organized following UNESCO’s strategic approach which supports the media’s role in electoral process in digital times, in addition to sharing knowledge and good practices within Member States on media, Internet and elections. Such support has been provided in Burundi, Côte d’Ivoire, Myanmar, Tunisia and Uruguay, while projects in Somalia, Zambia and Lebanon are in their planning phases. UNESCO’s work on elections and media can be consulted via the following publications, namely, the In Focus Series - World Trends Report on Election and Media in Digital Times, the Broadband Commission research report on ‘Freedom of Expression and Addressing Disinformation on the Internet’, and Social media and elections.

A live recording of the session is available via the IGF YouTube channel.