In 2024, billions of people will vote under the shadow of misinformation

The high number of elections across the world in a single year will take place in a highly-polarized context. Voters will contend with a breeding ground of misinformation, along with the consequences of generative AI

Era Desinformación IA
A citizen votes in Spain’s 2023 general elections.rafa alcaide (EFE)

In 2024, the electoral calendar will be intense. Around 40 national elections are set to be held. Among them, some are decisive for the international scene, such as the United States presidential election in November, or the parliamentary elections in India – the most populated country in the world – between April and May. But it will also be Taiwan’s turn – a key player in the tensions between China and the United States – along with Indonesia, the United Kingdom, Mexico, South Africa, Algeria, Mali, the Dominican Republic, Uruguay and many other countries. Bloomberg estimates that these processes will affect 41% of the global population and that their territories represent 42% of global GDP.

The results will influence the lives of billions of people. And to this, we must add regional elections of varying levels of significance. There will be regional elections in Turkey and Ireland, as well as in certain states and provinces of Germany and Spain. There will also be EU-wide elections, to elect a new European Parliament. And, if you pop over to Wikipedia, the list of electoral processes in 2024 numbers more than 100.

Given this concentration of elections, different specialized groups warn of the risks posed by misinformation and disinformation. In a report with recommendations about how to protect democratic health, the Center for American Progress describes 2024 as “high-risk” and points out the need for online platforms to dedicate the human and technological resources necessary to deal with problems during the year’s elections. The geopolitical consulting firm Oxford Analytica has also published a report warning of the risk posed by misinformation in the 2024 elections.

One of the effects of misinformation that experts monitor is distrust in the electoral process itself. “Lately, in the various elections in the United States, we’ve seen many false and misleading claims that take advantage of lapses or confusions around the voting processes, even though these elements have explanations that don’t indicate the existence of fraud,” explains Sam Howard, a political specialist at the NewsGuard platform, which monitors disinformation and offers tools to combat it. His colleague Chiara Vercellone, an analyst at the same organization, expands on this observation: “I would say that the narratives that we’ve seen spread in the United States are also very common in other countries when there are elections.”

The Brookings Institution published an article this year in which it argues that misinformation erodes trust in democracy. However, it could go further. “Until recently, the biggest impact of misinformation was simply the crisis of institutional trust. But now, a part of society is so saturated that it has decided to stop consuming information,” explains Carme Colomina, a researcher in global politics and disinformation at the Barcelona Center of International Affairs. And what are the consequences of this? “If you disconnect from current events, your vote is less informed. Also, to what extent do you feel mobilized?” The researcher wonders if this can lead to a political disconnection.

The crisis of confidence in the system materializes in different ways, depending on the scenario at hand. Silvia Majó-Vázquez, a researcher at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, highlights that, in the upcoming European elections, the debate on the very existence of the EU will intensify. “I think that the European elections will, once again, revolve around the need to have that supranational organization. It’s the eternal debate, which became more acute with Brexit. It has returned to the agenda of several countries, as a result of far-right parties entering national politics.”

This symptom is related to another of the main components of misinformation: the tendency to opt for extremes. “In India, we see how polarization is fueled by the government itself. [Prime Minister] Narendra Modi deploys a very divisive speech. His supporters use disinformation campaigns to spread rumors, to criminalize the Muslim population,” Colomina laments.

Majó-Vázquez agrees with this. “There’s a lot of disinformation that comes from the elites. We’ve seen it in the United States, with very clear disinformation regarding the validity of the electoral results. Because of political polarization, there’s a game in which disseminating information that isn’t accurate becomes valid.” The researcher adds that this trend is increasingly pronounced. As a reference, a report from the Reuters Institute maintains that the proportion of people concerned about not knowing what’s a lie and what’s true on the internet amounts to 56%.

The role of AI

Artificial intelligence can add confusion to the scenario. In Bangladesh, whose elections are this month, the pre-campaign has been peppered with disinformation generated with AI. “It’s the first electoral cycle where we’ll see the effects of artificial intelligence on campaigns,” Colomina emphasizes. “In previous elections, the impact of misinformation was clearly seen. But now, we’re at a much higher level of sophistication.” The Barcelona-based researcher refers to the attractiveness of the content generated with the new wave of generative AI, which is also available to anyone.

NewsGuard is cautious. They haven’t yet detected a significant impact of AI on misinformation, although they admit that this may change. They continue to monitor it closely. “We’ve identified what we call ‘AI-generated news pages.’ We’ve identified more than 600 websites of this type that apparently operate with little or no human supervision,” Howard reveals.

In 2023, AI was already being used to tarnish electoral campaigns. In the Chicago mayoral elections, a doctored video with a candidate’s photograph and an audio recording circulated on social media. It seemed like he was in favor of police violence, resulting in damage to his public image. And, across the ocean, another notorious deepfake took place two days before the elections in Slovakia. An audio recording was published with the voices of the leader of the Progressive Slovakia party, Michal Šimečka, and a journalist. The two were debating how to rig the vote. Everything had been generated with AI.

In the recent Argentine presidential campaign, there was also content generated with AI. A video with apocalyptic overtones went viral, making defeated center-left candidate Sergio Massa out to be a savior.

Colomina places emphasis on these types of actions. “You’re selling a certain image. This may seem innocuous, but it all feeds perceptions.” She introduces an important nuance: “There’s a very fine line between what’s creative license and what’s disinformation. Nor can we label everything as harmful.”

Living with misinformation

The main online communication platforms are the channels used to circulate misinformation. But these aren’t the same throughout the world. “The medium through which these narratives are spread depends a lot on the population and the type of platforms they use,” explains NewsGuard’s Vercellone. “In the United States, X or the Meta platforms are used, while in Spanish-speaking countries, the dissemination comes through WhatsApp and other messaging services,” he adds.

Regarding platforms, there’s another important difference between regions. Their moderation teams – including those temporarily set up for electoral processes – aren’t proportional to the countries’ needs. Rather, they respond to the legislative pressure that weighs on each territory. “In the Global South, platforms haven’t invested as heavily in moderation and automatic identification. This means that an equal or greater volume of misinformation can be expected in these areas,” Majó-Vázquez highlights.

To stop these misleading narratives, users are recommended to know the original source of the information and reflect before sharing it. “We have to assume that misinformation is part of this new reality. What’s at stake in the 2024 elections is the quality of democratic systems, which are increasingly questioned. In 2024, we have to see if it will be a moment of resistance, or if [our societies] will be dealt a new blow,” Colomina concludes.

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