How voting advice tests run by EU-skeptic parties may mislead voters in the EU elections

By: nikolaj kristensen&
siri christiansen&
June 4 2024

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How voting advice tests run by EU-skeptic parties may mislead voters in the EU elections

(Source: Waldemar/Unsplash)

Ahead of the European elections from June 6 to June 9, many voters have flocked to online voting advice applications — commonly known as vote compasses or election tests — to find out which political party or candidate they best align with. The tests typically consist of a wide range of statements that users agree or disagree with, thereby allowing users to compare their standpoint with the policies of major parties and candidates to find the closest match.

Usually, such tools are developed by objective research institutes or media organizations. However, in the lead-up to these elections, political parties in Denmark and Sweden have designed their own tools – which are now being criticized for potentially misleading voters. 

Voting advice tools have been described as "a completely defining part of navigating politics" in countries like Denmark. There, they were used by 62 percent of voters in the 2022 general election and even persuaded 100,000 people to change their vote, according to research by Aarhus University. 

However, clicking on one of the highest-ranked EU vote compass websites on Google, valgtest.eu, Danish voters familiar with election tests might have thought the questionnaire had a somewhat different tone than usual. Kopia av NEW TEMPLATE (DO NOT EDIT THIS MAKE A COPY) (17)

Screenshots from valgtest.eu, translated from Danish to English using in-browser Google Translate. (Source: valgtest.eu/screenshot)

If you agree to the statements, the test will give you the verdict, "YOU HAVE LANDED ON THE WORST IMAGINABLE: THE RADICALS," referring to the center-left Danish Social Liberal Party, known in Danish as De Radikale.   

Screenshot from valgtest.eu, translated from Danish to English using in-browser Google Translate. (Source: valgtest.eu/screenshot)

That's because the test was designed not by an objective research institute or media organization but by the EU-skeptic right-wing Danish People's Party – this, however, was noticeable only to those who bothered to scroll down to the bottom of the page.

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You would have to scroll down to the bottom of valgtest.eu to find that the Danish People's Party was behind the site. (Source: valgtest.eu/screenshot)


This is not an isolated Danish phenomenon. 

In neighboring Sweden, where 56 percent of voters used voting advice tools before the 2018 general election, the second-ranked EU vote compass on Google was recently revealed to have been created by the small far-right party Alternative for Sweden (AfS). This, however, had not been stated anywhere on the vote compass website – which, under the unassuming domain name valkompass.eu, described itself only as "an initiative to increase voter turnout in the EU elections and strengthen knowledge of what the various parties stand for." As a result, the vote compass was mistaken as the official EU vote compass by the media umbrella organization Tidningsutgivarna, which included a link to the site in its teaching material on source criticism. 

Just days later, another seemingly non-profit and politically independent Swedish vote compass – valbarometern.com – was revealed to have been co-founded by a politically active member of the liberal-conservative party Medborgerlig Samling (MED) who was appointed leader of the party just one year later.

Compasses should guide, not mislead

Those looking to take a vote compass in the lead-up to the EU election will find plenty of options. In Sweden, such tests are offered by several of the country's leading news organizations, such as Aftonbladet, Dagens Nyheter, and the public broadcaster SVT, as well as more niche news sites. The same goes for Denmark, where vote compasses can be found on the websites of public broadcaster DR along with TV 2, Altinget, Avisen Danmark, and others. 

While the Danish People's Party is commonly featured in Danish election tests, none of the Swedish examples include small fringe parties like AfS and MED, which gained just 0.46 and 0.15 percent of Swedish votes in the 2019 EU election. Patrik Öhberg, a researcher and superintendent of the SOM (Society, Opinion and Media) Institute at the University of Gothenburg, believes this is a contributing factor as to why alternative tests have appeared.

"These parties do not appear in the debates, they are not in the other major events, and therefore, they need other ways to become relevant," he told Logically Facts. "We know that the EU elections are the type of election where voters are more likely to take a chance and vote differently, and from that perspective, it's quite creative. Although I'm doubtful as to whether it will work."

Speaking to Logically Facts, AfS claimed it had been "prohibited from participating in the other vote compasses" and that this made it necessary to develop an alternative. According to SVT, however, vote compasses are created by analyzing policies pursued during the previous mandate period and, therefore, only include parties already represented in the European Parliament. 

"Polemical in nature"

According to Andreas Albertsen, associate professor of political science at Aarhus University, those who develop vote compasses — usually research organizations or political experts — normally ensure that the tests are free of bias. The questionnaire generally has a neutral tone and reflects a broad set of political issues, and political candidates or parties are often invited to answer the questionnaire to ensure their standings are accurately reflected. Aftonbladet's vote compass, for example, is developed with the SOM Institute at the University of Gothenburg, whose experts cross-check the parties' answers with a range of other sources, including election manifestos, party websites, and public announcements.

However, opposing EU candidates and experts criticized the Danish People's Party election test for its inherently misleading and biased design. Mathias Wessel Tromborg, a VVA expert from Aarhus University, told DR that the Danish People's Party test is designed in a way that makes users more likely to match with the party even if the user doesn't agree with its position in reality. 

The design of the AfS vote compass has also been criticized. The Swedish journalist Emanuel Karlsten highlighted that whereas vote compass questionnaires usually include around 20-30 questions, AfS's test only has eight, all of which are core issues to the party. The vote compass co-founded by MED's party leader is phrased similarly. 

Albertsen also highlighted this, telling Logically Facts that AfS and the Danish People's Party's tests are both biased, as some questions are phrased in a non-neutral way and "thus 'push' people toward certain views—i.e., those of the creators."


Screenshots from valbarometern.com, translated from Swedish to English using in-browser Google Translate. (source: valbarometern.com screenshot)


Logically Facts contacted the three parties, all of which disagreed with the criticism.

A spokesperson for MED has denied that its party leader, Daniel Sonesson, had ties to MED at the time of launching the vote compass together with his brother and said he discontinued his involvement after being appointed party leader in September 2023. The spokesperson also said Sonesson's involvement has been publicly stated on social media and in articles. 

"Since the accusation of something having been hidden from voters is incorrect, we do not agree that there is any ground for criticism," the MED spokesperson said.

An AfS spokesperson said the party name or logo does not appear on the page as "users could mistakenly think that this was a campaign page."

"Who developed the electoral compass is completely uninteresting in this context, the important thing is that it is correctly calibrated, which it is, primarily with the help of AI. Everyone thus gets the party that best matches their views," the AfS spokesperson added.

Anders Vistisen, the lead candidate for the Danish People's Party in the European election who has represented the European Parliament's Identity and Democracy group in pre-election debates, told Logically Facts that the party's election test "is the only objective vote compass, as it is based on what the parties actually voted – not on election platitudes and promises."

However, experts speaking to Logically Facts believe the problem lies in the fact that political links are not explicitly stated on websites. 

"They should be transparent about who created it," said Albertsen. "I don't think the front page of the VAA created by the Danish People's Party is sufficiently transparent – a logo all the way to the bottom of the page – and there is a similar problem with the Swedish one. In the Danish VAA it is indirectly revealed towards the end as you are basically mocked for receiving advice that is not the Danish People's Party. The Swedish one does not reveal it at all as far as I can see."

According to the misinformation expert and philosophy professor Åsa Wikforss, this makes the tests a kind of "black propaganda," which comes with major risks.

"When the sender is unknown, you can't check the reliability of the source – for example, you can't check whether the content is politically motivated," she told Logically Facts, adding, "If the vote compasses are deliberately designed to misrepresent public opinion, they constitute a form of disinformation."

Similarly, the SOM Institute's Öhberg said the tests connected to MED, AfS, and the Danish People's Party are "polemical in nature" and do not meet the very purpose of a vote compass – to guide voters.

"From that point of view, it is wrong for parties to create their own compasses in order to attract voters, because then it is more like political advertising – which is okay, but there should be a clear sender," he said. 

Albertsen said he doesn't think it is a problem as such that parties create their own vote advice applications. "But it should be clearly declared, and ideally, the [test] should adhere to best practices regarding the design. That is not the case here."

Search engine ranking lends legitimacy

Melissa Zimdars, an associate professor of communication and media at Merrimack College, said the fact that AfS and The Danish People's Party's vote compasses are among the first search results on Google means that people could mistake them for impartial and reliable sources.

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Screenshots showing the sites showing prominently on Google (Source: Google/screenshot modified by Logically Facts)

"We know that people tend not to go past the first page of Google results, so it's arguable that the prominence of results at the top or on the first page may confer a sense that the information is legitimate," she told Logically Facts. "And people take advantage of this."

She said that just like marketers, political groups and actors have figured out how to "game" Google searches and ultimately launder false, misleading, and extremist mis and disinformation by using specific keywords and phrases.

However, though this might lead some to believe search engines should manage how their systems are being gamed for political ends, Zimdars said they are not legally required to do so in most contexts.   

Michelle Amazeen, an associate professor of mass communication who researches mediated persuasion and misinformation at Boston University, agreed that high search engine rankings lend legitimacy to the election tests. "Most people find Google search results trustworthy," she told Logically Facts. 

She said the biased election tests showing up high in the search results are emblematic of the greater democratic challenge posed by tech giants. "This is yet another example of how a lack of transparency surrounding how a private company that controls vast amounts of news and information can undermine the public's ability to participate in the political process in an informed manner."

Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol who has researched technological and psychological factors of misinformation belief, said that when it comes to elections, special steps must be taken by the platforms to ensure their integrity. "The tricky thing will be to establish a process by which this can occur because there would have to be some sort of 'official' accreditation of those compasses and that may be difficult to achieve in the short run," he told Logically Facts. 

A spokesperson for Google said that while the company designs its ranking systems to surface high-quality information, the results can include content that people might find objectionable or offensive, depending on the keywords used in the search and what content is available on the web. 

"If someone uses very specific search terms, lower quality content can rise to the top of Search. In this case, the query directly matches the website in question, which is why the website is surfacing highly," the spokesperson told us. ("Valgtest" is Danish for election test, while "Valkompass" is Swedish for election compass.)  

The spokesperson said political ideology is not among the hundreds of factors Google employs in its search ranking systems to surface the highest-quality information available on the open web.

"We don't and would never manipulate search results, modify our products, or enforce our policies in any way to promote or disadvantage any particular political ideology, viewpoint or candidate," the spokesperson said.

 

This analysis was amended on June 6, 2024, to correctly identify Michelle Amazeen's title and university affiliation..

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