Electoral processes in democratic regimes, that is, those in which there is uncertainty in the election results and the ruling party can be defeated, have become global media phenomena. A few decades ago, the elections in one country aroused little interest in other latitudes, and even in countries of the same region. But today, thanks to the immediacy of digital conversation, we find specialists and people interested in the electoral processes of countries outside the reality of their own. The interest in these elections includes not only the voting day, but also the pre-electoral phase and, above all, the post-electoral phase, especially if the results are challenged or even contested before the courts.
Access to the digital conversation, coupled with the rise of political polarization, has turned electoral processes into true spectacles in which supporters and opponents of the candidates use social networks to express their agreement or dissatisfaction with the results.
The media, for their part, have taken advantage of this situation to maximize their impact. Many of them have become the exclusive source of information for some groups. So, they are committed to publishing content that coincides with and reinforces the convictions of their consumers. This process has notably deteriorated the quality of journalism and encouraged extremism in certain groups that dogmatically accept what their favorite media publishes.
Disinformation and trust in electoral processes
For years, international organizations and agencies, as well as electoral bodies, have been looking for solutions so that disinformation does not affect confidence in the electoral processes. However, it has not been an easy task, since it is a multifactorial problem and it has been proven that disinformation travels much faster and is more attractive than the subsequent fact-checking.
One of the most attractive (and harmful) ideas in electoral processes is that of fraud. That is to say, without elements that argue the denunciation, the ignorance of the results due to supposed fraudulent practices is encouraged.
According to the director of the OAS Department for Electoral Cooperation and Observation, Gerardo de Icaza, “When the idea of fraud takes over the opinion of a sector, it is difficult to find an antidote or argument that can convince them otherwise. In addition, the media find in allegations of fraud a tempting opportunity to generate ratings and sell newspapers with the publication of sensationalist headlines”.
Unfortunately, this situation is not extraordinary; on the contrary, we can say that, in one way or another, most of the recent electoral processes in the region have been victims of this idea.
Last year’s elections in Brazil involved an enormous effort for both the Superior Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and the fact-checkers, who had to face an avalanche of disinformation in the pre-electoral phase, as well as in the post-electoral phase. During the months leading up to Election Day, President Jair Bolsonaro himself claimed that the electronic ballot boxes were vulnerable and that fraud could be perpetrated. In this way, distrust was generated in a voting system that has worked properly for more than twenty years.
Subsequently, after his defeat was known, disinformation focused on feeding the idea of fraud, which led to demonstrations by tens of thousands of Bolsonaro’s supporters to demand the recognition of his victory.
Another case that had a worldwide impact was the fraud claim by former President Donald Trump. Together with his lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani toured television studios and courts claiming that they had been victims of massive fraud. Some television networks such as Fox News actively spread this idea, even accusing some technology development companies, such as Dominion Voting Systems or Smartmatic. Some of the network’s journalists and guests on their programs claimed that the voting machines had been manipulated and, therefore, Joe Biden’s election was fraudulent.
The accused companies took matters into their own hands and went to court accusing the famous media outlet of defamation. Dominion Voting Systems asked for a compensation of 1.6 billion dollars and Smartmatic for 2.7 billion dollars.
Last March 31, a little more than two years after the 2020 elections, the Delaware Superior Court ruled that none of the statements made by Fox News about Dominion were true and ordered a trial to determine whether the network had acted with actual malice. Faced with this situation, Fox News settled with the company for a payment of US$787 million to avoid the trial.
Democracy is an intangible, priceless asset, but attacking and questioning its institutions in an unjustified and irresponsible manner must have a price.
*Translated from Spanish by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva