An NDI Initiative to Protect the Integrity of Political Information
Disinformation in politics, particularly elections, represents a critical threat to democracy. It spreads cynicism, distorts political processes and interferes with citizens’ ability to make sound political decisions. Authoritarian aggressors, such as Russia, are using propaganda, electoral espionage and other weapons of hybrid warfare to pollute political discourse, shape electoral and policy outcomes, and undermine democratic institutions. At a time when the political identities of young people are increasingly formed on social media, the confluence of big data, artificial intelligence, computational propaganda, and political bots are making mass manipulation of public opinion more effective and insidious. In digital politics, there is a blurring of the lines between domestic and foreign actors, “organic” and “inorganic” digital political conversations, traditional and new media, insiders and outsiders, news and entertainment, and “earned media” and advertising.
While Russia often dominates the U.S. headlines on these issues, the problem is global in scale. Disinformation and computational propaganda are used, in varying degrees, by authoritarian and illiberal governments in order to consolidate power. Increasingly, these tactics are also bleeding over into new, restored, and consolidated democracies. Social media analysis firms have estimated that roughly 20 percent of all references to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Twitter are being generated by machines, or bots. Bots not only spread positive information about their masters, but also crowd out, counter, or obscure social media messages by opposition. Artificial intelligence and machine learning are being used not only to disseminate and amplify messages, but increasingly to create and tailor messages for specific target audiences. Disinformation has also become big business. Psychological warfare or “psyops” and influence operations capabilities are increasingly spilling over into the world of commercial international political consulting.
To address these challenges, NDI has launched INFO/tegrity, an initiative to draw on experts and front-line practitioners from politics, civil society, academia, journalism, social media, technology, and government to scale up responses to disinformation in its democracy and governance programming. Its #disinfoweek series of events in June 2017 reached 7 million unique users. In a key component of the #disinfoweek initiative, NDI partnered with Stanford University, the Oxford Internet Institute, the First Draft Coalition, Jigsaw, the Atlantic Council, Google NewsLab, and the Konrad Adenauer Institute to host a Digital Disinformation Forum that brought the world’s leading experts on computational propaganda together with political activists and tech policy leaders to discuss concrete promising practices for identifying, analyzing and countering disinformation.
As part of the INFO/tegrity initiative, NDI and its partners are:
Although “information warfare” has been analyzed in considerable depth, there is little available data on the actual impact that weaponized disinformation has on specific intended audiences, i.e., who is most susceptible, why they are receptive, how disinformation impacts their attitudes and behaviors, and whether and under what circumstances they can develop resilience. NDI has developed a set of innovative opinion research methodologies to help to answer these questions. The initial focus of the research is on Ukraine where the first study took place, and the results have been presented to partners in the democracy and technology communities in Washington, D.C., and Silicon Valley.
The monitoring of disinformation and computational propaganda must be better integrated into the international and domestic election monitoring architecture. Beginning in the fall of 2017, NDI has begun fielding disinformation experts as part of its long-term election observation missions to assess the impact of computational propaganda on the integrity of political information in a particular election. With 30+ years of experience in supporting these efforts globally, NDI is also actively working with hundreds of election monitoring partners to refine methodologies for monitoring the use of these techniques in elections.
NDI is supporting greater dialogue among political parties to better understand the nature of the disinformation threat to democracy, to provide additional tools and resources on how to protect themselves from disinformation, and to agree on ground rules regarding permissible and impermissible online campaign conduct. Given the role of political hacking in many disinformation campaigns, NDI is also working with parties to provide enhanced cybersecurity training, partnering with such actors as Harvard University’s Belfer Center.
While tech firms and social media platforms have an interest in ensuring that their products are not used to undermine democracy, they often also face countervailing market incentives, especially when operating in authoritarian or semi-authoritarian contexts. Through its presence and relationships in Silicon Valley, NDI has been able to facilitate resolution of complaints by democracy activists and political parties regarding several particular decisions of social media companies. In collaboration with partner organizations in the democracy community working around the world, NDI is supporting a Design 4 Democracy Coalition to connect with tech companies and social media platforms to better protect the integrity of political information and support constructive democratic discourse.
Technology experts are developing a broad range of tools to help identify, analyze, expose and disempower inauthentic political discourse online. Most front-line civil society, political party and media organizations do not have access to these resources or the capacity to use them effectively. NDI is working with partners around the globe to access and adapt tools to better identify and blunt the impact of disinformation, e.g., through “disinformation bootcamps” in countries preparing for elections or experiencing other periods of potential vulnerability. As one example, NDI worked with the election commission in Mexico (INE) to share learning about disinformation and computational propaganda in advance of the country’s July 2018 general elections.
Computational propaganda and disinformation—together with greater political polarization and extremism fueled partly by the rise of social media—have damaged public confidence in democratic institutions. As part of the INFO/tegrity initiative, NDI is working with groups such as the Code for All Network to scale creative uses of civic tech to reduce corruption, increase transparency, improve citizen engagement and rebuild public trust. NDI is also working with Living Cities to identify “promising practices” in democratic innovation in urban governance, with the goal of strengthening citizen trust in government.