Tech companies take on the threat of social media during elections

Protestors calling for President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence to leave the white house rally outside the Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, California, USA, 06 November 2020. Credit: EPA / John G. Mabanglo.

From Myanmar to the United States, companies work to minimise election interference.

In the recent US election, an unprecedented number of postal votes meant the world had to wait days before a result was declared. There was widespread concern beforehand that this delay would lead to a claim of victory before it was secured, and that misinformation about the result might circulate on social media, prompting further confusion and driving civil unrest. When it came to it, the predictions were not far off the mark.

But in the lead-up to the election, technology companies took steps to try to ensure any misuse of their platforms would not endanger the democratic process. Twitter blocked false election-win claims and labelled misinformation as such, and Facebook deactivated hashtags related to ‘fake news’ and teamed up with Reuters to provide accurate election results coverage.

For many people in the US and Europe, this was the first time they had witnessed these measures in action. But such techniques have been widely used in other parts of the world over recent years to try to tackle the growing threat social media poses to elections.

“A lot of the issues that happened around the US election were present in many countries before - Myanmar, Kenya, Ukraine, the Central African Republic were all the test cases for the use of social media and technology to interfere with elections,” said Ory Okolloh, speaking during The Kofi Annan Foundation's conference on elections and democracy in East Africa on Thursday. Only after “it landed in the Global North did you see concrete action”, she said.

Okolloh, who is a commissioner for Kofi Annan's Commission on Elections and Democracy in the Digital Age , explained that global trends such as increasing polarisation, declining trust in institutions, and the quick spread of disinformation have made social media a tool, but that it isn 't the danger in itself.

“What we're finding is that it's amplifying existing tensions and maybe making them spread faster, maybe limiting the room for discussions that would have happened across parts who are disagreeing, but it is not the cause.”

Long before the most recent US election, tech companies have been working to prevent social media from being used in such a way, explained Akua Gyekye, regional program manager for Africa and MENA (Middle East and North Africa) elections at Facebook.

“Facebook is now channeling an unprecedented number of resources for technology, but also hiring experts in safety, social media, cybersecurity and the like to think about every single election,” said Gyekye, who has worked on recent elections in countries such as Kenya and Tanzania.

But they can't do it alone. “We've been doing a lot in taking on fake accounts - over 1.5 billion globally - and running media literacy campaigns and the like,” said Gyekye. “But I think that in the end, we have to work with our partners in civil society and the government to make sure that this is a positive trend, and realise that every election should get ... support to mitigate any related risks.”