In 2024, billions of people will vote in the shadow of disinformation | Technology

During the year 2024, the electoral calendar will be intense. Around forty national elections are organized. Among them, some as decisive for the international scene as those of the United States, in November, or those of India, the most populous country in the world. But it will also be the turn of Taiwan, a key player in tensions between China and the United States; in Indonesia, United Kingdom, Mexico, South Africa, Algeria, Mali, Dominican Republic, Uruguay and many more. Bloomberg Economics estimates that these processes will affect 41% of the world’s population and that their territories represent 42% of world GDP.

The results will influence the lives of billions of people. Added to this are regional elections of another importance. There will be some in Turkey, Ireland, certain states of Germany or Spain, where the vote will take place in Galicia and the Basque Country, as well as in the EU, to elect a new European Parliament. Taking as a reference a list published on Wikipediathe number of electoral processes would rise to more than 100 throughout 2024.

Faced with this concentration of elections, various specialized entities are warning of the risk posed by disinformation. In a report containing recommendations to protect democratic health, the thinking group American Center for American Progress describes the year 2024 as “high risk” and highlights the need for platforms online dedicate the necessary human and technical resources to resolve problems during electoral processes. Geopolitical consultancy Oxford Analytica published a report in which he warns of the risk posed by misinformation in the 2024 elections.

One effect of disinformation that experts are watching is distrust of the electoral process itself. “Lately, during the various elections in the United States, we have seen many false and misleading claims that take advantage of errors or confusion surrounding the voting processes, even if these elements have explanations that do not indicate the existence of fraud,” says Sam. Howard, political specialist at the NewsGuard platform, which monitors misinformation and offers tools to combat it. His colleague Chiara Vercellone, an analyst at the same organization, expands on this observation: “I would say that the stories that we have seen spread in the United States are also very common in other countries when there are elections. »

The Brookings Institution, others thinking group the United States, published an article this year in which he argues that disinformation erodes trust in democracy. However, it could go further. “Until recently, the main impact of disinformation was simply the crisis of institutional trust. But today, part of society is so saturated that it decides to stop consuming information,” explains Carme Colomina, researcher in global politics and disinformation at the CIDOB study center. And what are the consequences? “If you disconnect from the news, your vote is less informed. And to what extent do you feel mobilized? The researcher then wonders if this could lead to a political disconnect.

The crisis of confidence in the system materializes in different ways depending on the scenarios. Silvia Majó-Vázquez, researcher at Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, emphasizes that during the next European elections, the debate on the very existence of the EU will intensify: “I believe that the European elections will once again revolve around the need to have this supranational organization. This is an eternal debate, which has worsened with Brexit and which has returned to the agenda in several countries following the entry into national politics of far-right parties.”

This symptom is linked to another of the main components – cause and consequence – of disinformation: the tendency to extremes. “In India, we see how polarization is fueled by the government itself. (Current Prime Minister) Narendra Modi has a very controversial speech. Their supporters use disinformation campaigns to spread rumors and criminalize the Muslim population,” explains Colomina.

Majó-Vázquez agrees with this view. “There is a lot of misinformation coming from elites. We saw this in the United States, with very clear misinformation about the validity of election results. Because of political polarization, there is a game in which spreading incorrect information is valid,” and the researcher adds that this trend is increasingly pronounced. In reference, a report from the entity to which it belongs claims that the proportion of people worried about not knowing what is true and what is a lie on the Internet is 56%.

The entry into play of AI

Artificial intelligence can add confusion to the scenario. In Bangladesh, whose elections will take place in January, the pre-campaign was peppered with AI-generated misinformation. “This is the first electoral cycle where we will see the effects of artificial intelligence on campaigns,” underlines Colomina. “In previous elections, the impact of disinformation was clearly visible. But we are now at a much higher level of sophistication. » The CIDOB researcher refers to the attractiveness of content generated with the new wave of generative AI, equally accessible to all.

NewsGuard is cautious. They have yet to detect any significant impact of AI on misinformation, although they admit that this could change and are monitoring the situation closely. “We explored and identified what we call AI-generated news pages. We have identified more than 600 such websites which apparently operate with little or no human supervision,” Howard reveals.

In 2023, artificial intelligence has already been used to tarnish election campaigns. During the Chicago municipal elections, it circulated on the networks a video with the photo of a candidate and an oral message. It seemed that his voice was in favor of police violence, with harmful consequences for his public image. Another notorious deepfake took place two days before the elections in Slovakia. An audio has been released with the voices of the leader of the Slovak Progressive Party, Michal Šimečka, and that of a journalist. The two men debated how to rig the vote. Obviously, everything was generated with AI.

In the recent Argentinian campaign there was also content generated with artificial intelligence. It went viral a video with apocalyptic connotations who made Sergio Massa a savior. On the platform a communist leader, but with a raised hand salutewhile for him the image of a good-natured lion which embraces the Argentine nation.

Colomina emphasizes this type of action. “You are selling a certain image. This may seem trivial, but all this feeds perceptions. Although this introduces an important nuance: “There is a very fine line between what is creative license and what is disinformation. We can’t call everything harmful either.

Living with misinformation

The main online communication platforms are the channels used to spread disinformation. But they are not the same everywhere in the world. “The medium through which these stories are spread depends a lot on the population and the type of platforms they use,” says Vercellone of NewsGuard. “In the United States, we use the X or Meta platforms, while in Spanish-speaking countries, distribution is done via WhatsApp and other messaging services,” he adds.

When it comes to platforms, there is another important difference between regions. Their moderation teams, including those temporarily set up for electoral processes, are not proportional to the countries’ needs. Rather, they respond to the legislative pressure that weighs on each territory. “In Southern countries, platforms have not invested as much in moderation and automatic identification of quality content. This means that we can expect an equal or greater volume of misinformation in these areas,” emphasizes Majó-Vázquez.

To stop these misleading narratives, it is recommended that users know the original source of the information and think carefully before sharing it. “We must assume that misinformation is part of this new reality. The issue at stake in the 2024 elections is the quality of democratic systems, which is increasingly being called into question. In 2024 we have to see if it will be a moment of resistance or if it will be another blow,” says Colomina.

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