Why Public Trust in Elections Is Being Undermined by Global Disinformation Campaigns

Internet “troll farms” are often set up, with teams of people putting out misleading messages to counter political viewpoints or other narratives. These farms employ workers on 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, with daily quotas of 135 posted messages per day, per worker.

One example is the Russian Internet Research Agency (also known as Glavset), ostensibly a private company but one that appears to be funded by the Russian government(now operating under different guises as part of “Project Lakhta”). It spreads Kremlin disinformation on social media using false identities and false information, under different names.

Using a variety of sources that employ different narratives and arguments but point to the same conclusion is more persuasive, because it conceals the fact that the propaganda ultimately derives from the same source. A study conducted by the Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government on the use of Twitter as a forum for disinformation found: “Evidence from an analysis of Twitter data reveals that Russian social media trolls exploited racial and political identities to infiltrate distinct groups of authentic users, playing on their group identities.”

Russia is also accused of mounting various campaigns to influence elections, including the presidential elections in the US in 2016 and 2020. Academic analysis of how the Russian Internet Research Agency used social media showed how they specifically targeted “self-described Christian patriots, supporters of the Republican party and of presidential candidate Donald Trump”.

The Russian governing elite believes that the west is committed to transforming the post-Soviet countries using non-military instruments of warfare, including economic instruments, the spreading of ideas about democracy and human rights, and support for NGOs and human rights activists with the purpose of inducing “color revolutions” that will topple governments. By conducting information warfare Russia claims it is only responding to western methods.

The overall purpose is to create mistrust of the core institutions of liberal democracy including parliaments, mainstream media, elections and the judiciary.

Governments can respond by introducing regulations to combat the spread of disinformation, but this is controversial because it forces governments to define the limits of free speech. In practice, it means introducing and further developing elaborate codes of practice and guidelines for the internet and social media. Another tool is the development of fact-checking networks.

If disinformation creates a widespread public belief that elections are “stolen” or manipulated, it undermines belief in public institutions that are essential to democratic governance. Therefore, such disinformation campaigns can pose a very serious threat to liberal democracy and public order. This is the outcome that some of the state actors are seeking. The development of the instruments to deal with this challenge is only just beginning.

Christoph Bluth is Professor of International Relations and Security, University of Bradford. This article is published courtesy of The Conversation.