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Former U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull once stated that “[A] lie will gallop halfway round the world before the truth has time to pull its breeches on.” In many ways, his statement rings even more true today. Lies spread even faster with the availability of the internet. Not only do they spread faster, similar claims can be repeated and changed to fit a specific country’s current political climate. One of the main lies social media helps propogate is election disinformation.
Americans experienced the consequences of election disinformation on January 6, 2021, when approximately 2,000 rioters stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., to prevent the certification of the 2020 election. Rioters set up a noose outside the Capitol building, shouting “Hang [Vice President] Mike Pence.” Many politicians and citizens alike have attempted to downplay the severity of what the United States witnessed just one and a half years ago. However, there is no ignoring the fact this event was violent and deadly and showed how disinformation can mobilize and enrage people to take action in ways never thought imaginable.
Disinformation is a rising transnational threat. With two major elections approaching in two of the world’s largest democracies, the United States and Brazil, it is worth discussing the impacts disinformation has had on elections in each of these countries and why this troubling trend may be here to stay. Brazil and the United States share a lot in common, including concern for issues like trade, climate change, and, most importantly, democracy. The threats these two countries face in their upcoming elections demonstrate how election disinformation campaigns can become mutually reinforcing. Election disinformation anywhere threatens democracies everywhere.
The United States’ Disinformation Problem
In the United States, disinformation about voter fraud and election tampering are not new, but for the sake of brevity, we can start at the 2016 election. Election disinformation in the 2016 election actually stems from an interesting place, and it is not former President Donald Trump. In fact, doubt on the validity of the 2016 election began during the Democratic primary.
Senator Bernie Sanders was facing off against Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Many viewed Clinton as favored to win the nomination especially because, at the time, Sanders was a relatively unknown Senator from Vermont, one of the smallest states in the union. Sanders was a breakout hit for many, but he still did not have enough support to clinch the nomination in the states where it mattered. Due to this, Sanders began to take issue with the way superdelegates (an unpledged delegate who can choose who they vote for) were counted in the process. Since 2016, the superdelegate process has been reformed, but it came too late to stop the spiral of this claim.
Then-candidate Trump, who had already clinched his party’s nomination, saw the Sanders-Clinton controversy as a way to promote the idea Clinton stole the nomination and would also “steal” the election in November if he were to lose. After the election, even though Trump was the President, the claims did not stop. Trump continued to espouse claims of fraud because of his loss of the popular vote, all while claiming this was due to corruption by Clinton and the “global elite.” He tweeted,“In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
While most claims died down during Trump’s early years in office, once the Democratic party nominated then Vice President Joe Biden to challenge Trump, fraud claims were back and worse than ever before. After Trump’s defeat, he refused to concede and began claiming he won the election by a landslide. Despite all efforts to quell the President’s rhetoric, claims continued to build and culminated in the January 6th insurrection where six people lost their lives and the rioters caused $1.5 million in damages to the Capitol.
Claims of election fraud did not stop after the 2020 election. As midterm elections approach, ten seats will determine Senate control. Disinformation about the midterms is only ramping up. Multiple research firms, including Zignal Labs and Similarweb, have tracked a large uptick in the number of times “stolen election” and “stop the steal” have been used across different platforms. These phrases, popularized by Trump, are only the tip of the iceberg for the midterms. New conspiracy theories continue to emerge including those centered around people trafficking ballots and casting false ones.
These stories encourage people to take action. After the January 6th insurrection, many people have turned to “proactive” measures to combat perceived election fraud. These methods include unauthorized poll-watching and ballot drop-box policing. Even well-intentioned, vigilante poll watchers can create a hostile environment where some may not feel safe or comfortable voting.
These claims have not only increased since the 2020 elections, they have emboldened state lawmakers to pass new laws that make it harder for some people to vote. Under the guise of “stopping election fraud,” states like Arizona and Georgia have passed restrictive voting provisions that damage turnout by affecting who can vote in the upcoming elections.
For the past eight years, America has been pumping out election disinformation like no other country on earth. Has it impacted other democracies around the globe?
Brazil: A Democracy on the Edge of Collapse
Brazil’s democracy has been in a political spiral for a number of years now. President Jair Bolsonaro rose through the ranks of government very quickly in the same way Trump did, by campaigning as a political outsider following a five-year period of economic trouble and political corruption that damaged the country’s social services infrastructure. Bolsonaro is not solely responsible for this problem, but his actions and rhetoric have only driven Brazil further toward the verge of collapse.
Recently, Brazil held its preliminary round of elections, with no candidate receiving the required 50% threshold for an automatic victory. Now, the election will move to a run-off where Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will face off against current President Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro has been no stranger to controversy, and taking a page from Trump’s playbook, has begun to cast doubts on the validity of the election – before it even begins.
Bolsonaro originally began this rhetoric in 2018, by stating that because the elections are completed electronically, there is no way to audit the vote. The claim is false, and the machines can retrieve all votes cast in the event of a recount. In fact, the voting machines in Brazil are selected at random and tested in order to ensure their accuracy.
In addition to claims the voting infrastructure itself is flawed, Bolsonaro has claimed there is no world in which his opponent could win because Bolsonaro is beloved by his people. Despite these claims, many polls show da Silva leading by more than ten percentage points. In fact, da Silva led Bolsonaro in the first vote by five points but did not reach the threshold to clinch an automatic victory. Bolsonaro has indicated publicly he will refuse to go down quietly. At a rally last year, Bolsonaro said, “We have three alternatives for me: Prison, death, or victory…. Tell the bastards I’ll never be arrested.”
Bolsonaro’s claims have had real consequences, and many have lost faith in the way Brazil’s Elections are conducted. Many fear the political environment in Brazil has turned so hostile, it may not be worth participating in anymore. The non-profit organization Human Rights Watch reported that the Superior Electoral Court has banned guns within 100-meters of a polling location, fearing the rise in political violence spurred by polarization could become deadly at the polls.
This recent campaign season has already been particularly deadly, and it can be linked to the divisive rhetoric that is sewing distrust in the political system. Since 2020, cases of violence against candidates, officials, and government workers have risen 23%, and there have been at least 214 cases just this year. Bolsonaro has encouraged his supporters to be ready for a fight in case da Silva wins the election, stating they need to be ready for war.
No one can truly pinpoint what is next for Brazilian democracy, but many fear this prolonged downturn paired with a divisive election could mean the end of a democratic Brazil.
Much Ado about Democracy
Should the globe be worried about this latest trend? Democracies should feel the heat. A study published in 2022 found between 2000 to 2017, social media disinformation drove domestic terrorism up primarily by increasing political polarization in countries. It makes sense: if you convince your supporters your challenger is cheating, it increases resentment between people with opposing views.
The United States is particularly worried about what could happen in Brazil at the end of the month. With the US election only nine days later, many on both sides of the aisle fear any backlash in Brazil will threaten global democracy. This fear is palpable and has led at least six Democratic senators to introduce a bill supporting Brazil’s democratic institutions. However, this issue is not confined to these two countries, nor is it contained to democracies. There have been claims of election tampering and fraud in Kenya, Canada, and France, just to name a few.
It is clear this problem is here to stay, at least for a little while. Today, we are more globally connected than ever before because of social media. Now, the real challenge will be how to stop disinformation from spreading and affecting other democratic institutions. Nobody has really figured out how to stop the spread of election disinformation. Aside from continuing to push countries to regulate social media and social media companies to hold themselves accountable, it does not really seem there is much we can do. For now, we can all try to do better by checking our sources and ensuring our claims have a good factual basis. Easier said than done.
Life would probably be better if we thought about the way our interactions online affected the real world around us. What may be a simple share or like to you, can be the beginning of a spiral for someone else. We need to calm down and make sure everything we consume through social media is true, honest, and well-intentioned. It is easier said than done, but it may be vital for democracies going forward. The world is rapidly changing, and democracies will need to adapt or the so-called “democratic experiment” will come to an end.