Who influences voters decisions and how? The role of social media and third party actors [RELATION] + [VIDEO]

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Democracy and civil society

Who influences voters decisions and how? The role of social media and third party actors [RELATION] + [VIDEO]

At the beginning of December, the fourth in a series of expert seminars of the Institute of Public Affairs took place. During those, we discuss how the integrity of the electoral process can be protected. The last meeting was devoted to how the electoral campaign can be influenced by non-electoral committee actors, including foreign actors using social media.

Together with the invited experts, we considered what threats to the independence and equality of elections might arise from such attempts to influence election outcomes. An important context for such discussions was the abolition of the criminalisation of participation in election campaigning by third parties, introduced by the 2018 amendment to the Electoral Code.

Introductory speeches to the discussion were given by:
•    Dr Tomasz Gąsior - an expert on campaign financing, election control and election practice, affiliated with the Kujawsko-Pomorskie University, (recording at bottom of page),
•    Anna Mierzyńska - analyst of online information threats and disinformation, specialist in political marketing of the public sector and social communication (recording at bottom of page.

Afterwards, all those participating in the seminar engaged in a discussion aimed at identifying possible methods of influence by third-party actors on the course of the elections and at identifying ways to counter the risks involved. We sought to put particular emphasis on the role that civil society can play in these activities.

During the discussion, it was mentioned, among other things, that it is worthwhile to continue work aimed at limiting the freedom of activity on social media platforms and introducing further mechanisms to control the origin of the content appearing there. However, the question of how broadly censorship of online activities can be applied needs to be considered. It is also worth discussing the transparency of the algorithms themselves, which guide such control of content on the platforms - who sets the rules of its operation and what issues such control concerns. In addition, it is most desirable to introduce horizontal solutions that would apply to all possible social media platforms, rather than working on rules for only a select few. An interesting example is the European Commission's proposed package of two regulations appearing under the name The Digital Services Act.

Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that behind the actions on the platforms, however, are usually people with their aspirations and emotions. If we block their access to one place, they will find others, looking for the kind of information they need. On this principle, discussions removed from media such as Facebook or Twitter migrate to alternative platforms. Then they often return to mainstream social media as posts forwarded by users.

The events related to the publication of various scandalous material on campaigning politicians online during the campaign show that the rapidity of the reaction from the relevant electoral staff, authorised state institutions and civil society is very important. The sooner such provocation can be disarmed, the less damage it can do to a candidate's image and, as a result, such an attempt to influence the course of the election will have less impact. What is also important in this context is the behaviour of the mainstream media, which, by passing on such information (regardless of the tone of their coverage), contribute to its legitimacy and further dissemination. They should therefore be able to behave properly in case of such events.

During the discussion, the need for more concrete action before the elections themselves was also pointed out. This included, among other things, talking to social media platforms about what they intend to do so that they are not used to undermine the independence of the elections. Such a discussion about appropriate educational measures should also be undertaken with the National Election Commission, whose competences also include conducting educational measures aimed at citizens regarding the rules of election organisation. The activity of the electoral bodies in this respect can be complemented by the efforts of other entities aimed at building public awareness of the manipulation of social media messages and controlling what information reaches the citizens. Traditional media and civic organisations have important roles to play in conducting such educational activities.

We will publish a full version of the policy paper summarising the seminar shortly.

For more information on these activities: filip.pazderski@isp.org.pl. 

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