Report: disinformation production has diversified and ‘democratized’

NATO StratCom COE has published a new report "Mitigating Disinformation in Southeast Asian Elections: Lessons from Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand."

This report offers a regional assessment of current practices in election-related social media manipulation and in the interventions made to defend the integrity of elections from ‘trolls’ and ‘buzzers’ with the aim of mitigating future risks in the global context. Research methods of the report are primarily qualitative, drawing on interviews with politicians, campaigners, digital strategists, and journalists. Researchers also make use of digital ethnography based on the long-term observation of online communities across social media platforms. 

Researchers observed a wider range of political actors and parties enlisting a diversity of digital campaign specialists and paid ‘buzzers’ [in Indonesia], ‘trolls’ [in the Philippines], and ‘IOs (information operators)’ [in Thailand] to circulate manipulative narratives discrediting their political opponents. Some politicians even fanned the flames of religious (in Indonesia and Thailand) and ethnic (in all three) conflict in their communities, in a desperate bid to score votes. Meanwhile, tech platforms, journalists, and fact-checkers struggled to catch up with disinformation architects’ savvy innovations. Rather than mitigate disinformation, state actors and government legislators in all three countries have been found to be directly responsible for producing political disinformation themselves.

This report highlights five key trends in election-related disinformation and integrity interventions discussed in the sections that follow:

  1. In recent elections incumbents were largely victorious in all three countries. Incumbents made use of state information machinery to amplify particular political narratives. Incumbents also strategically harnessed the regulatory mechanisms of election campaigns and social media content monitoring to their advantage. Opposition candidates were more likely to be singled out and penalized for their campaign violations than incumbents.
  2. However, disinformation production has diversified and ‘democratized’—a broader set of political leaders and workers are involved for electoral as well as commercial gain.
  3. While social media platforms have become more central political battlegrounds for heated debate and ‘trolling’, they do not determine electoral outcomes. Grassroots mobilization and ‘ground machinery’ remain crucial in rallying rural and working-class populations. Social media however are important platforms for seeding narratives that can influence the mainstream media agenda and the political conversation at large.
  4. Tech platforms applied different and uneven integrity interventions and it is unclear whether there is a coherent strategy in their engagements with local election commissions and fact-checkers.
  5. The consequence of an expanded disinformation landscape is ever-deepening polarization: across political party lines, but crucially also across lines of race, class, religion, and generation. The ramifications of election-related disinformation extend beyond the political realm to the social and the cultural; this will have far-reaching effects.