Democracy at risk: media warfare and the role of technology in modern elections



Picture of Denis (Jaromil) Roio
Denis (Jaromil) Roio

Founder of Foundation and 2013 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Technology has always been enormously influential in elections, particularly, technology that shapes the media space: the way people communicate with each other, one-to-many, one-to-one or divided between groups of interest, etc. Technologies such as radio and television seem almost prehistoric today, as political parties adopted them more than half a century ago to amplify political campaigns at the scale of a nation or even a federation of states. While these early technologies were mostly enabling one-to-many communication architectures, in modern times we face a change of paradigm: what we call today ‘social media platforms’ are enabling many-to-many communications driven by complex and hidden algorithms, while companies operating them are still making a profit on paid placement, just like it was with ads on radio or TV stations.

There is another difference to be noted when comparing TV political advertisements with those aired on social networks. Everyone can see the same message on TV, but on social networks, one may be shown a message that is specifically targeted for him or her: tailored one’s interests, family status, lifestyle, religion, health situation, etc., and such message will be shown only to this person, without the possibility to publicly verify its contents. Social network platforms are among the technologies that can manipulate society’s beliefs and their interference in political processes, such as elections, could undermine democracies, as the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre recently warned in its “Risks on the horizon” study.

When social network platforms disregard journalism deontology and profit from the distribution of lies, then systemic problems like Cambridge Analytica take place: a company selling targeted ads on Facebook to cold-war enemies willing to disrupt the outcome of elections and destabilise governments worldwide. It was just a decade ago when ads were telling voters all sorts of fake stories about candidates and these ads were shown only to some people to trigger a reaction in them. For instance, telling family members of cancer victims that Hillary Clinton wanted to stop funding cancer research.

The number of violations reported just in Europe and only in 2024 […] depicts well-established tactics of media warfare from which the population needs to be protected

The extraordinary number of electoral processes in 2024 globally, including recent elections in India and Europe, and the upcoming US Presidential elections, provide a reference point for analysing these threats in action.

Professors at the European University Institute are warning of the rapid popularisation of generative-AI that makes threats of foreign interference and disinformation operations more subtle and harmful for our democracies than ever before. The number of violations reported just in Europe and only in 2024, also denounced by the Danish Broadcasting Corporation, depicts well-established tactics of media warfare from which the population needs to be protected.

During the recent elections in India, Meta (Facebook’s and WhatsApp’s parent company) publicly pledged to block manipulative AI-generated content from spreading, but such content swept through their social media and messaging apps, according to a report cited by The Guardian: Meta approved fourteen highly inflammatory ads inciting ethnic violence during the silence period of Indian elections.

Among the many episodes spotted during European elections is the interesting case of an outpouring of anti-Western hostile disinformation on social media during Hungary’s election campaign, for which analysts working for the European Media and Information Fund (EMIF) on electoral disinformation unveiled that a disproportionate amount of money was spent on social media ads by Viktor Orban’s anti-EU Fidesz party.

Policymakers need to keep in mind these networks do not act for the public interest, but for a profit-driven agenda massively based on selling ad space

The approach taken by EMIF is particularly interesting as it shows that ‘follow the money’ is once again a valid method to investigate the field: it is worth running a detailed analysis when the spending on targeted social media promotion is one figure higher, like it happens with Fidesz investing an approximate 4mn figure in comparison to a 400k average spending by major European political parties.

Today, political campaign regulation in Europe varies from country to country. Considering a growing emergency, European policymakers should mandate the public reporting of  parties’ financial spending on advertisement campaigns, and social networks should adhere to the same rules as traditional media in pre-election periods.

The few US based corporations running mainstream social network platforms are the best source of financial data. They must therefore level-up their cooperation against disinformation attacks, as there are obvious weaknesses in content filtering. Policymakers need to keep in mind these networks do not act for the public interest, but for a profit-driven agenda massively based on selling ad space, and we now face again failed attempts at shielding the population against the growing number of media warfare attacks.

Transparency in political party financing is also very important as it provides missing pieces of the puzzle when establishing the legitimacy of spending. There is room for improvement on this front too, by combating the systematic under-reporting of private donations and campaign spending in countries like Hungary and Italy, and overall homologation of political finance regulatory regimes across Europe, as well as their supervision and enforcement. This would facilitate the analysis of broader aspects of the political system determining or influencing how particular rules function, and which potential integrity risks arise.

This article is part of our European Elections #Voices4Choices campaign. Find out more here. The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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