An exposition on THe forEign informatioN mAnipulation and interference​

Advances in technology threaten our democratic processes. How can we safeguard democracy?

Author: Dr Richa Kumar, Trilateral Research

 This year, 2024, is the global election year with 80 countries holding elections and nearly 4 billion people eligible to vote. With the European Parliament elections in June 2024, as a part of its overall aim to establish a safe and trusted online environment and maintaining election integrity, the European Commission continues its commitment to “nurture and safeguard democracy” with an aim to “promote free and fair elections”.

On 8 February 2024, the European Commission published a consultation on Guidelines for VLOPs and VLOSEs on the Mitigation of Systemic Risks for Electoral Processes with a view to address the various types of online content and practices that can pose a risk to election integrity such as hate speech, foreign information manipulation, interference and disinformation, and content generated through generative AI. These Guidelines are in accordance with Art. 31(1)(c) of the Digital Services Act (DSA) that obliges providers of very large online platforms and very large online search engines to assess and mitigate systemic risks for “electoral processes”. The DSA classifies platforms or search engines that have more than 45 million users per month in the EU as very large online platforms (VLOPs) or very large online search engines (VLOSEs).

On 25 April 25, the European Commission designated 17 VLOPs and two VLOSEs to whom these Guidelines are applicable. Given the large reach and impact of VLOPs and VLOSEs, these Guidelines are a step in the right direction as they establish very clear measures and best practices to be implemented by VLOPs and VLOSEs across the entire lifecycle of electoral process – before, during and after – with an aim to reduce systemic electoral risks through online planforms.

TRI, as the ATHENA project coordinator along with inputs from project partners, Maldita and EU-Disinfo, responded to the public consultation. A key recommendation for the successful implementation of the wide-ranging practices is to ensure that these measures are implemented on an ongoing basis. Effective countermeasures against information manipulation are to ensure an iterative and circular implementation of risk mitigation measures. A time-wise demarcation between before, during and after elections might defeat the effectiveness of information manipulation countermeasures. Additionally, mitigation measures must be applied both online and offline, as information manipulation happens offline as well.

At the core of the integrity of electoral processes is the citizen. To effectively combat information manipulation with long-term results, it is crucial to develop a population capable of critical thinking and psychological resilience against disinformation. Research shows that once citizens have consumed manipulated information, like fake news etc., they are unable to process any countering factual information even when fake news is labelled as such. Therefore, providers of VLOPs and VLOSEs should collaborate with researchers, civil society organisations, advocacy organisations, fact-checkers and citizen bodies to make the analysis of the impact of manipulated information accessible and understandable. Furthermore, there should be provisions to make this information available across various media – online and offline. However, whilst citizens need to have the skills to find, identify, think critically about and evaluate the election-related information they are consuming, politicians, political parties and providers of VLSOPs and VLOSEs must ensure that they have access to credible and factual information. Psychological studies on consumption of fake news demonstrate that our prior knowledge is crucial to our ability in debunking fake news and manipulated information. Further, while fostering citizen resilience, it is important to pay particular attention to marginalised communities such as migrants, women, girls and LGBTIQ+ as information manipulation often targets them.

As we globally stand at a critical juncture of celebrating democracies in 2024, technology is playing a transformative role in reconfiguring our democracies. The ATHENA project is contributing to understanding and safeguarding our democratic processes in the face of this. Our response to the public consultation Guidelines for Providers of Very Large Online Platforms and Very Large Online Search Engines on the Mitigation of Systemic Risks for Electoral Processes is further strengthened by our upcoming ATHENA research activities on the measures taken by governments outside the EU. By providing an in-depth review of 30 case studies of foreign information manipulation and interference (FIMI) and tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs), we will develop an early-detection toolbox and novel countermeasures. Following our research on the short and long term societal and behavioral impact of FIMI, we will create robust policy recommendations and best practices to strengthen our democracies.

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