Digital media and persuasion in elections

November 12, 2023

Digital interference during elections has been pervasive not just in the US but also the Global South

Digital media and  persuasion in elections


n its recent judgment, the Supreme Court in the Munir Ahmed v Federation of Pakistan case, dated November 3, while directing fixing of the election date highlighted the role of the media in the electoral process:

“[S]ome [in the media] have construed this freedom as a license to disinform and build a false narrative, and do so to undermine democracy.”

Without referring specifically to social media, Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa pointed out that disinformation, if allowed to fester unchecked, erodes “confidence in democracy [and] diminishes people’s engagement with it and suppresses voter turnout.” These observations in a case otherwise about determining the date of the upcoming elections are revelatory of what the judges consider to be relevant issues going forward.

Digital electoral manipulation became a mainstream conversation in the wake of the 2016 US elections which saw Donald Trump rise to power, leveraging disinformation through organised digital campaigns. The Cambridge Analytica scandal and its subsequent fall-out, including attempted accountability for social media companies and increased calls for regulation, loom large in debates regarding elections. Despite previous attempts at thwarting digital disinformation, it has remained unchecked as election denial on social media platforms was one of the main reasons for the January 6, 2021, Capitol Hill insurrection and attacks.

Digital interference during elections is pervasive not just in the US. It has been an endemic issue in the Global South as well. Elections in Brazil, Malaysia, Kenya and beyond have seen disinformation operations becoming increasingly sophisticated and difficult to moderate for social media companies. For instance, during the 2018 Brazilian elections, misinformation and disinformation were disseminated largely through WhatsApp. The private and encrypted nature of the platform makes it difficult to track and regulate disinformation.

While research on disinformation and electoral manipulation in Pakistan has been scant, there is no shortage of examples of the ways organised campaigns have been launched by political parties and state institutions to construct political narratives. One of the first parties to adapt to social media has been the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, which has been a trailblazer in its embrace of social media as an avenue for reaching younger demographics, developing tactics for large-scale social media narrative building and mounting disinformation campaigns against opponents. The PTI’s faith in social media has been duly rewarded, allowing it to shape mainstream conversations. On the other hand, its social media wing has also been subject to various cases under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, in the past year, demonstrating the double-edged nature of social media campaigning in the Pakistani context.

Globally, disinformation for-hire companies are increasingly being used for targeted disinformation campaigns. Personal data is weaponised to develop persuasion campaigns consisting of micro-targeted ads and posts. While Cambridge Analytica is the most high-profile example of this, Tactical Tech in its report titled Personal Data: Political Persuasion found that disinformation for-hire firms were used extensively in election campaigns in Argentina (2017) and India (2019).

Beyond disinformation, digital manipulation can also take the form of controlling access to the internet and mobile networks near and on election day. In the lead-up to the 2018 elections in Pakistan, large parts of the country, particularly ex-FATA and Balochistan, faced long-term internet shutdowns resulting in these populations being cut off from taking part in online campaigning and accessing essential information regarding voting. Internet shutdowns in the election context can disrupt information flows, impacting electoral transparency as they hinder the ability of the media and the general public to raise issues regarding election irregularities or incidents of rigging.

Another emerging worry is the deployment of artificial intelligence to create persuasive disinformation at scale, surpassing existing verification and content moderation capacities. The proliferation of natural language processing models, popularly accessed through apps such as ChatGPT and DALL-E, has made the creation of believable disinformation easy and fairly low-cost. For instance, influence operations can now easily be launched using images and videos that can be entirely AI-generated to disrupt election narratives. This can potentially create a virtual nightmare for regulators, social media companies and fact-checkers. Imagine a deep fake video of an electoral candidate circulating on social media right before the elections, impacting the safety and electability of the candidate and undermining the elections.

Despite these challenges, it is important to point out that digital platforms can be used for mass voter education, encouraging voter turnout and engagement. Independent candidates and smaller political parties disproportionately rely on digital platforms to campaign as they offer a cheaper alternative to on-ground activities. To realise the benefits of digital platforms during elections Pakistan needs effective and agile guardrails against electoral manipulation online.

The Election Commission of Pakistan could play an instrumental role in ensuring accountability for all political actors by mandating transparency regarding parties’ digital media cells and expenditure on digital media campaigns. While the new code of conduct by the ECP covers social media platforms, it is important to strike a balance between regulation that benefits voters and ensuring freedom of expression without undue interference in the electoral process. This is a fine balance to maintain, however an important one in the context of previous “pre-poll rigging” that has involved censorship of the media.

Lastly, social media companies will play a pivotal role in the upcoming elections as their decision to take down content and identify coordinated inauthentic behaviour could be the difference between manipulated or free elections. 2024 will be a year of major elections across the world, including in the US and neighbouring India, which might mean these companies deprioritise the February 8 polls in Pakistan – it is, thus, all the more imperative that companies dedicate considerable resources to markets such as Pakistan.

The writer is a researcher and campaigner on human and digital rights issues

Digital media and persuasion in elections