TRUTH DECAYWhy Public Trust in Elections Is Being Undermined by Global Disinformation Campaigns

By Christoph Bluth

Published 30 April 2022

Public trust in elections is being targeted around the world by a series of disinformation campaigns from a range of international players. There are often similar campaigns run by domestic political players, as has been the case, for example, in the United States, Brazil, and Mexico. These campaigns are giving rise to an increasing lack of trust in how votes are counted. The overall purpose is to create mistrust of the core institutions of liberal democracy, including parliaments, mainstream media, elections, and the judiciary.

Public trust in elections is being targeted around the world by a series of disinformation campaigns from a range of international players. This is giving rise to an increasing lack of trust in how votes are counted.

The almost unlimited capacity for individuals and organizations to publish information using websites (only limited by time and manpower), social media and other outlets has given disinformation campaigns a set of new media to manipulate in the last decade.

With the Brazilian election coming up this autumn, analysts have already suggested that public trust in voting processes is being targeted, with similar tactics to those used around the last US presidential election. Like former US president Donald Trump, Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has started undermining public confidence in the democratic process by claiming that elections were fraudulent.

Bolsonaro has also raised questions about both electronic voting and the vote-counting process.

Disinformation campaigns often begin well before elections to create confusion and allow the losers to challenge results. During Mexico’s 2021 election disinformation was spread through social networks in a bitter and polarized campaign. There was evidence of organized trolls spreading insults and attacks against candidates, and a rise in fake news stories about the election.

These tactics are being used across the world. The European Parliament said the “most systemic threats to political processes and human rights arise from organized attempts to run coordinated campaigns across multiple social media platforms”. A 2019 report discovered evidence of organized social media manipulation campaigns in 70 different countries, employing armies of “cyber troops” (300,000 in China for instance) to influence public opinion on various issues, and create political chaos. And a US foundation has raised concerns about new state laws shifting election administration powers to political or partisan bodies.

A Chinese disinformation campaign to discredit presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen, and another against Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists were reported on. Twitter took down 900 fake accounts used by the Chinese authorities and another 200,000 new accounts linked with another Chinese network.

How Do They Work?
Disinformation campaigns often rely on an enormous volume of messages, using a variety of methods. They use traditional media such as newspapers, radio broadcasts and television, but disinformation is also spread via websites, social media, chat rooms, and satellite broadcasting and include a whole mix of texts, photographs and videos using thousands of fake accounts.