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Fighting misinformation with counter narratives

19 January 2024

Government communicators should go beyond facts to combat misinformation at the record number of elections this year.

This year has been billed as the election year. A record 4 billion people will head to the polls in over 60 countries in 2024. Bangladesh and Taiwan got things up and running last week, with elections for the European parliament, the Indian parliament, the president of the United States, and the UK parliament to come.

And misinformation is tipped to play a major role in 2024’s elections, just as it has in recent years.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2024 sees ‘misinformation and disinformation’ ranked as the number one risk of the next two years. Somewhat surprisingly ahead of extreme weather events, and even armed conflict. The report cites fears that misinformation will threaten the ‘legitimacy of newly elected governments’. Repeated false claims that the 2020 presidential election in the United States was ‘rigged’ led to a majority (65%) of Donald Trump supporters believing that their candidate had in fact won the election.

And there were similar false rumours that questioned the integrity of the French presidential election in 2022. A Verian (formerly Kantar Public) survey found that 19% of French people thought that the result of the presidential election was rigged; rising to 51% amongst voters for the candidate who lost in the second round, Marine Le Pen.

Aside from undermining the legitimacy of election results, misinformation has been shown to influence voting intention in studies related to the 2017 French presidential election and the German federal election of the same year. Looking ahead to the 2024 European elections in June, members of the European Parliament recently adopted a text that warns of ‘increased interference and information manipulation activity’ that might ‘prevent citizens from making informed [vote] choices or discourage them from political participation altogether’.

The text calls for a coordinated strategy to combat misinformation during the European elections. In Europe and elsewhere, the success of any such strategy depends on meaningful communication with the public to complement ongoing legislative efforts.

Policymakers across the world have recently introduced new legislation to limit the public’s exposure to misinformation, especially online where it is quick to spread. In Europe for example, the Digital Services Act defines new responsibilities for online social networks, including systematic rules for the removal of harmful misleading content, and penalties in the event of non-compliance. The United States and UK governments have respectively introduced equivalent regulation. And more will be needed to account for new technological developments, such as AI-generated misinformation and ‘deepfakes’.

Nonetheless, voters will most probably go on to encounter misinformation during this year’s elections. And governments can increase their country’s resilience to such interference via engaging communication that provides the public with reliable information.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, public health campaigns tackled misleading information that fuelled opposition to lockdown rules and vaccination programmes head-on. Indeed 78% of government communicators, surveyed in the latest edition of The Leaders’ Report published by WPP and Verian (formerly Kantar Public), say that their organisation has made some efforts to counter misinformation since 2020.

At the same time, interviews with respondents reveal concern about governments playing the role of ‘arbiters of the truth’ in the public debate. This has led to a reluctance to extend their communication efforts against misinformation, especially in election periods.

And yet to mitigate the impact of misinformation, governments do not have to contend with the truth at all. The number of fact-checkers around the world might have doubled over the past six years, with nearly 400 teams of journalists and researchers operating in 105 countries. But the effectiveness of fact-checking – or ‘debunking’ – as a tool to reduce belief in misinformation varies. That people tend to avoid fact-checks that contradict their existing views illustrates its limits.

An alternative approach that has been trialled by some governments involves providing an engaging counter narrative that raises questions about the misleading information – without necessarily calling it out as false. The aim is to spark independent critical thinking around the topic.

For example, the Taiwanese government developed a novel counter narrative strategy during the Covid-19 pandemic, dubbed ‘humour over rumour’. In response to unfounded rumours that had caused panic buying of toilet paper, the Digital Minister Audrey Tang published online a cartoon of Taiwanese Premier Su Tseng-Chang wiggling his bum with the slogan ‘we only have one pair of buttocks’ – the message being that there is only so much toilet paper that an individual needs. Absurd as it sounds, the cartoon went viral and – according to Tang – neutralised the problematic misinformation. ‘Humour is a sublimation of outrage,’ she said.

In Ukraine, the government regularly promotes humorous and attention-grabbing content through state channels in response to misleading information about the Russian invasion. The Ukrainian Memes Forces X (formerly Twitter) account has over 350,000 followers. And the TOZHSAMIST' citizen initiative raises awareness about diversity and equality in Ukraine to counter false rumours about the significant presence of neo-Nazism in the country. Japan’s environment Minister, Shinjiro Koizumi, is on the same track when he pledged to mobilise young people to commit to a low-carbon future by making the fight against climate change ‘sexy’ and ‘fun’.

Government communicators in countries with elections still to come this year should take inspiration from the above case studies. Counter narratives that make light of falsehoods about the integrity of democracy will allow them to dilute the influence of misinformation, and so improve trust in political institutions that is currently at a low ebb.

Laurence Vardaxoglou

Research Director,
Political, Opinion and Electoral


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