Being an informed voter is hard by itself. Nowadays, it is even harder with the rise of disinformation.
The myth of freedom
Do you have an iWatch, or any similar wearable device that is able to track your biometrics? If you don’t, pretend that you do. Imagine that while you are scrolling through your Instagram feed a flashy advertisement for some political party promoting LGBT rights appears on your screen. You are not interested, so your heartbeat continues as normal and you scroll past it immediately. Later during the day, there is a new advertisement denouncing violence from undocumented migrants towards an old couple that happened in a city close to yours recently. You linger on the ad, your heartbeat accelerates, your pupils widen, and you think to yourself: “They did it again!” From this occasion, your country’s Eurosceptic party can already track how strong your emotional response was to their particular disinformation ad, since your heartbeat is measured by your wearable device, your pupils’ size by the facial recognition future of your phone, and your attention time by Instagram. Their following step is easy to anticipate – the political party will incorporate as many anti-immigration news stories into your feed as possible. They will assume that your strong emotional response means that you won’t question the validity of the advertisements/news that denounces immigration, probably because you want them to be true, so the Eurosceptic party won’t have to make the effort of bombarding you with truthful information. Instead, they will twist facts to create the strongest impact possible. The result logically follows: you will vote for that specific party that plans to address your deepest concerns.
The scenario above has been adapted from one that Yuval Noah Harari, the bestselling author of Sapiens, describes in his article for the Guardian titled The Myth of Freedom. While he addresses the threat that a belief in free will exposes us to companies and governments that can “hack” our neurochemistry to make us act in the ways they want, this article will make an emphasis on disinformation. Although often confused with other similar concepts such as misinformation, disinformation refers to verifiably false or misleading information created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally mislead the public, in a way which could cause social harm. Here, an important distinction must be made between disinformation and propaganda, considering disinformation the use of false information in political propaganda.
The new type of disinformation
Disinformation by itself is a powerful and dangerous political tool, able to rattle current democracies and spread like wildfire. Yet there is a specific type of disinformation, namely targeted or personalized disinformation, that we should be extremely/especially cautious about. Despite efforts to increase regulation and awareness, we are constantly exposing more of our data to companies and third parties. They, in turn, use our data to create tailored advertisements in order to powerfully sway customers in whichever direction they want.
Before, a single array of pieces of disinformation were arranged so that they could have the strongest effect on the greatest amount of people possible. Such a way to spread disinformation had some degree of effectiveness, but it required a great use of resources, usually including mainstream media coverage, and was bound to be ignored by a big chunk of the population. Now, by knowing what you are interested in, political parties don’t have to guess; they can efficiently distribute their propaganda buzzing with false or exaggerated information so that it reaches the right people with the right content at the right time.
Disinformation reshaping political arena
Maybe this does not seem too scary if, for example, Nike predicts you are into blue running shoes so they advertise their blue running shoes all across your social media and you end up buying them. You wanted to buy them anyway, so what is the problem, after all? The issue, however, becomes much more serious when considering political elections. For simplicity, let us look into a political model with two likely candidates or options, such as the United States when voting for a president. The percentage of voters that political parties have to convince is smaller than the entire electorate, usually way smaller. In the particular case of the United States, most states do not matter when electing a president, since only a limited number of swing states are actually decisive.
Continuing the example of the swing states, political parties can predict who is unsure of which candidate to choose, and who is unsure of voting. Now that the sample size is more or less defined, political parties can either directly bombard these undecided voters with disinformation directly or other agents can push their political agenda and do the same. Resources only have to be devoted to target those people whose votes actually matter and who can be convinced of voting the way the party wants. A ton of pressure is thus put in a small area. Then, an inevitable snap will follow. The election is swayed towards the party that is able to put the highest amount of pressure in the weakest point.
If both political parties, in the case of the United States presidential elections, use targeted advertisement, then their efforts may cancel each other out, and we are left in a more or less level playing field. Yet this is not likely to be the case. One of the parties will take advantage of disinformation and its potentially bigger impact than truthful news. The party that is able to reach people with the most inflated and exaggerated news and ideas will likely be the one that arises the greatest emotional response, and will therefore be the one that is going to have the highest probability of winning. This leaves us with two possible outcomes: either the party who invests more heavily on spreading disinformation wins, or both parties ferociously compete in the spread of false information and we are left drowning in fake news. Sadly, this is what the new political arena will look like, unless measures are taken to prevent it.
It should be admitted that disinformation is a relatively new and indeed a complicated phenomenon, and there is still a lot to be learned and investigated about its nature and the ways of coping with the dangers that it poses
Are legal frameworks ready for disinformation battle?
When it comes to combating disinformation and its consequences, there are several actors that have the power to change the status quo. It is not a secret that the progress in resolution of many issues is often triggered by the changes in legal frameworks. The battle against disinformation is not an exception, and legislators and political institutions, such as international and supranational organizations, indeed are the actors that have a big say in the matter.
The European Commission, for example, recognized in 2018 the threat of disinformation in its Communication “Tackling online disinformation: a European approach”. The Communication points out main principles and objectives in tackling disinformation, namely improving transparency of the origin of information, promoting its diversity and fostering its credibility, and fashioning inclusive solutions. It is proposed that these objectives should be achieved through a number of measures, such as strengthening fact checking, and fostering online accountability, education and media literacy. Moreover, the Commission pointed out the possible influence of disinformation on the future 2019 European Parliament elections.
The EU’s concern about the upcoming European Parliament elections resulted in the Action Plan against Disinformation that was adopted in December by the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and by the Commission. The four pillars of the Plan are: improving the capacity of the European Union’s institutions to detect, analyze and expose disinformation; strengthening coordinated and joint responses to disinformation; mobilizing private sector to tackle disinformation and raising awareness and improving societal resilience. Pedro Peña, Attorney of the Spanish Parliament, agrees that the Plan is not perfect (e.g. it has relatively small resources and it lacks precisions and a clear understanding as regards the phenomenon of disinformation), yet he remains hopeful as to its effects.
Among the positive aspects of the Action Plan against disinformation, Peña indicates the emphasis on the need of cooperation between the Member States in tackling the issue. Member States of the Union indeed have been increasingly realizing the dangers of disinformation for their national order, yet the response and its scope to such danger varies from one jurisdiction to another. Germany, for example, adopted Network Enforcement Act (NetzDG) that obliges social networks to delete illegal content (e.g. the one affecting public order, state security, incitement to hatred, etc.), as well as to publish biannual report on compliant-management strategies if more than 100 complaints about the illegal content are received. French National Assembly attempted to pass a law that included such measures as simplified urgent civil appeal and granting Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel with the competence to suspend the foreign TV services emission that aim at its destabilization during the electoral period. However, the legislative proposal was rejected by the French Senate. Finally, Spain’s response was that the People’s Party proposed a motion that dealt with the potential threat and impact of fake news on citizens but the Congress rejected the motion. The approach to the matter is quite different in those countries, and Peña argues that such a divergence is determined by the “constitutional and legal structure, culture, political situation, and level of public awareness on this problem have an impact”. Moreover, the disinformation issue is relatively new, and the national legislators indeed still have to adapt to find effective solutions.
Private efforts to combat disinformation
Yet, the legislators and political institutions are not the only ones who are standing against disinformation. There is no doubt that the main source of news nowadays are social media, and hence social media platforms have the greatest say in the matter – they are the ones who in the end have supervisory control over the content that is posted on their platforms. Biggest private actors in the field, such as Google, Facebook and Twitter, signed the Code of Practice on Disinformation under which they are committing to achieving greater scrutiny of ad placements, political advertising and issue-based advertising, integrity of their services, and empowering their consumers and the research community.
Social media platforms have already started adopting some steps in order to mitigate the effects of exaggerated or false propaganda by political parties. Facebook, for instance, is taking steps to assure greater transparency for the upcoming European Elections. It will make public who is paying for which political advertisement, and will keep public records of such information. Google presented a white paper stating the ways in which it is tackling the problem of spreading misinformation. Twitter has focused on the response to malicious actors by closing fake or suspicious accounts.
The European Commission, although recognized such steps as positive, criticized the social media platforms for various reasons after they released their first reports on the compliance with their obligations under the Code. The Commission noticed several issues: Facebook did not report on the amount of fake accounts eliminated based on the presence of malicious activity targeted at EU; Google lacks clarity and specificity as to the actions against disinformation; and Twitter failed to provide any metrics as to the commitments regarding improvement of scrutiny of ad placements. As it can be seen, some efforts were done by the biggest social media platforms, which indeed can be helpful in the fight against disinformation. Yet, the EU is not satisfied enough with the results achieved so far – what is quite understandable taking into account the proximity of European Parliament elections and the destabilized political situation across Europe that exposes people to the greater influence of disinformation.
Overall, there is no doubt that disinformation poses a great threat to modern democracies and that under its influence the political arena is going to go through some great changes. With the rise of new types of disinformation, such as targeted and issue-based disinformation, and in the light of the future European Parliament elections, the threat is even more prominent. The urge to cooperate and take action in order to mitigate the impact of disinformation was recognized and understood on multiple levels – from the public sector and actors such as the EU and the national legislators to the private sector with the biggest actors such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter. On all the levels, there is a lot to be criticized in the measures adopted so far. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that the effort to combat disinformation and its consequences is indeed present. It should be admitted that disinformation is a relatively new and indeed a complicated phenomenon, and there is still a lot to be learned and investigated about its nature and the ways of coping with the dangers that it poses. In the end, the final say in the issue is with us, the voters, and we should also be more proactive in dealing with the matter and be alert and aware of the possible influences while making crucial decisions, such as voting for a particular party in the upcoming elections. Will you make a (dis)informed vote?
Ruslan Saleev is a Bachelor of Laws student at IE University and UWC Adriatic alumnus. He demonstrated interest in the field of law already in his high school years, during which he became the winner of the All-Russian Olympiad in Law (2015). Since his first year at IE, Ruslan has been involved in the research of the significance of art in International Criminal Law and the liberalization of services trade in federal states. After his World Arts and Cultures studies at UWC Adriatic, he is very keen on art and is eager to become an expert in Art and Cultural Heritage Law field in the future.
Ricardo Ángel Barrientos is a second-year student of Politics, Law and Economics at IE University. He is president of the Political Think Tank Club in Segovia and Editor of the LawAhead Hub in Madrid. He has experience working with the social investment firm GAWA capital, the risk management and risk assessment firm ASR S.A.S., and the Fintech startup Quienmepresta.com.
Note: The views expressed by the author of this paper are completely personal and do not represent the position of any affiliated institution.