Speaking in ballots: The importance of open and fair elections for freedom of speech

November 25, 2020 / Current Affairs / By OPTF

2020 has been the year of the general election — over 40 different countries have already held elections this year. With so many millions of ballots being cast in 2020 all around the world this year, the importance of voting as a form of free speech has come into the spotlight. Arguably, voting is the ultimate expression of speech, with it you choose not only leaders, but everything they stand for, believe in, and plan to do. A number in a box is all it takes to alter the direction of a country, region, or even the world. 

Earlier in the year, concerns were raised over the ways in which the Coronavirus pandemic might affect democratic elections, with fears of elections being delayed, postponed, or receiving very low turnouts due to populations’ health concerns. As the year has progressed, though, democracy has proven its resilience, and the appetite for free and open elections has been in plain view as countries such as Germany, Poland, Sri Lanka, and South Korea had higher than average voter turnouts in their elections this year. 

Of course, in spite of this promising display of desire for democracy, the pandemic flung open the door to an issue that has dogged democratic elections for several years now: the onslaught of disinformation and misinformation. 

He said that she said that that’s not what he said

In 2020, misinformation comes in many forms — and it’s a real threat to people’s ability to make informed voting decisions, and by extension a serious impediment on freedom of speech. During any democratic election, it’s not just voting day that matters, it’s everything leading up to it: campaign platforms, policy promises, the news cycle, and the water-cooler conversations. All of these dialogues — and many more — end up informing the decisions and behaviours of voters. 

For as long as democratic elections have been held, it has been recognised that it is critical for us to ensure that this discourse is played out in a fair, open, and honest manner. There are lots of different approaches to safeguarding the open platforms of debate that underpin the election process. 

Here in Australia, political messages which are broadcast on radio or television must announce who authorised the advertisement within the ad itself — so that people know who is speaking to them, and can consider the potential agenda of that person or party. 

On top of that, during election season, the country’s public broadcaster (the Australian Broadcasting Corporation) is committed to providing both the Government and Opposition parties with equal, free, and mostly unrestricted broadcast time to communicate their policy announcements to the Australian public. This is to ensure that both parties have the chance to exchange opinions, communicate their policy, and deliver their message to the voting populace without being beholden to ordinary news and current affairs programming. 

This kind of coverage is open and transparent — there is direct communication from the campaigning parties to the voting people, with as little interference as possible. This can help to mitigate the possibility of misinterpretation, misinformation, or confusion. Voters know exactly who is speaking to them, and can judge the merit of each campaigning party for themselves. 

Many democratic countries have similar safeguards in place to make sure political candidates have a platform to communicate with the voting public, but as with many aspects of life, technology has thrown a spanner in the works. 

The misinformation machine

The key to any strong democracy is balance. Democracies are built on debate, discourse, and dialogue. Hearing both sides of the story gives people the opportunity to make their own informed voting decisions and use their free speech to advocate for the kind of government they want to represent them. 

With the rise of micro-targeted advertising, this system has gone out of the window. Social media is an information dissemination machine, and micro-targeting allows some voices to be much louder than others — while also allowing those voices to choose exactly who they’re speaking to. This means disinformation campaigns can identify and target specific segments or groups who they believe may be vulnerable to their message, maximising the insidious impact of the campaign. 

So far, social media websites like Facebook and Twitter have had trouble mitigating disinformation on their platforms. It’s simple enough to see the effect disinformation has on voters, and therefore elections, but what solutions are available to us? 

Counter that speech

How do you stifle the spread of misinformation? Nurture the spread of factual information. Truthful information campaigns and misinformation counterspeech have become prominent ways of trying to slow or mitigate the effects of disinformation. 

One of the most common ways of doing this is simply fact-checking claims, especially claims made by prominent figures, and attempting to make those fact-checks visible and verifiable. But more importantly — an alternative must be offered. It is not quite enough to simply say ‘[this disinformation] is not true,’ such a statement must also be coupled with ‘[actual, factual information] is true’. 

Limit the power of micro-targeting

Micro-targeting is extremely effective because it can target very specific people with highly tailored messages and advertisements. So far, social media platforms — most famously Facebook — have struggled to limit the power of micro-targeted political advertisements. Earlier in the year, the Web Foundation called for Facebook to halt micro-targeted political advertisements for the sake of democracy. Eventually, on November 4 — the day of the United States election — Facebook temporarily stopped all advertisements about social issues, elections, or politics in the United States. Of course, the issue with this approach is that by the time the election rolled around many voters may have already been targeted, misinformed, or manipulated by micro-targeted advertisements. 

It’s unclear whether social media platforms have the power or the prerogative to effectively combat this problem. The cat is now well and truly out of the bag. One thing which may be able to help curb the micro-targeting storm is the adoption of privacy-respecting attitudes in the tech space. Whether by using and promoting privacy-respecting technologies, or through large social media conglomerates like Facebook adopting more privacy-forward policies (something which seems overwhelmingly unlikely), moving the internet’s business model away from the collection and exploitation of personal information would no doubt be a step towards quashing the critical threat which disinformation poses to democracy. 

Think deeply, speak clearly

The solution to the issue of political misinformation is complex and nuanced, but it is essential to preserve and build democracies and people’s free speech (in the form of well-informed, well-reasoned voting). There’s a lot of work to be done, but people’s willingness to participate in elections in 2020 is enormously heartening. 

It will undoubtedly take a multilateral effort from technology and social media platforms, news media, political figures, and the voting population themselves to counter the rise and spread of disinformation — and we hope that the technology community can do its part to protect democratic elections in 2020 and beyond.

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