Fraudulent narratives: the insidious threat of voter fraud claims on European Parliament elections

Fraudulent narratives: the insidious threat of voter fraud claims on European Parliament elections

By: christian haag&
May 31 2024

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Fraudulent narratives: the insidious threat of voter fraud claims on European Parliament elections

(Source: REUTERS/Christian Hartmann)

"It's not enough for them to rig the elections, but they also proudly show it on their official website," proclaimed one social media user on X, formerly Twitter, during Spain's general election in 2023. The user was one of several peddling a false narrative that 2.3 million ballots had gone missing from the vote count. 

The claim was a hoax, yet went viral on Telegram, Twitter, and YouTube. In reality, the 2.3 million ballots correlated to the number of votes cast by Spanish nationals from abroad. It was one of many that circulated during Spain's election, including multiple variations on electoral fraud clams.

With such allegations commonplace during national elections in EU countries in recent years, it's no surprise that claims of voter fraud have already begun to emerge ahead of the European Parliament vote in early June. 

"We are already seeing viral disinformation in at least three different countries about tampered ballots, vote-buying, alleged fraud in vote counts, which are all usual ways to undermine integrity and confidence in elections that we have seen often in the past,” Carlos Hernández-Echevarría, chair of the European Fact-Checking Standards Network, told Logically Facts.

The EU has gone to great lengths to prepare against mis and disinformation ahead of the parliamentary vote. The European Fact-Checking Standards Network has collated a database of fact-checked information from 40 European countries, while the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) also maintains an archive of EU-election-related fact checks and posts daily bulletins about false narratives being spread - vital work given April saw the highest amounts of EU-related disinformation since their monitoring started. 

The European elections are a particularly fertile breeding ground for disinformation due, in part, to the complexities of the bloc's structure. "There is a great deal of ignorance about how the EU actually works, and thus also how the elections actually take place," Emma Ricknell, senior lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Sweden's Linnaeus University, told Logically Facts. "There is thus a knowledge gap that can be exploited by forces that want to spread unrest and make people lose confidence."

Concerns have risen in particular about Russian attempts to influence the EU election. Paul Bouchaud, a specialist in algorithmic auditing, discovered a pro-Russian ad campaign on Facebook targeting the EU elections. The Russian newspaper Pravda, labeled a “disinformation network” by EDMO, has expanded into 19 additional EU languages, including a dedicated Swedish language website.

With these factors in mind, EU elections risk being caught in a hailstorm of false information. But how do these kinds of claims undermine election integrity, and what can you look out for to avoid getting fooled?

A detrimental effect

Establishing a causal relationship between voter fraud claims and election integrity can be challenging, Ricknell explained, although there is a wealth of research on the subject. In a 2021 article, a group of American academics examined the effects of unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud on confidence in elections using a nationwide survey conducted in the US 2018 midterm elections. They found that such claims had a negative impact on public confidence in elections and that fact-checking had little effect on countering the claims. 

A similar study in 2022 found that "exposure to claims of election fraud (even without supporting evidence) indeed reduces respondents' faith in elections and beliefs in democratic government." However, much of the existing research tends to focus on the U.S. presidential election in 2020, likely due to a wealth of available data for study.

"Survey experiments also allow researchers to study what happens when people are exposed to information of different truthfulness and to compare these to draw conclusions about the effects of the information," Ricknell said. "For all the difficulties in demonstrating the effects of false claims about choice, we have methods that highlight how some groups in particular are more susceptible to such disinformation than others."

 

2021-01-06T000000Z_760565445_MT1NURPHO000IL0CUX_RTRMADP_3_TRUMP-SUPPORTERS-HOLD-STOP-THE-STEAL-RALLY-IN-DC-AMID-RATIFICATION-OF-PRESIDENTIAL-ELECTION (1)Trump supporters take the steps on the east side of the US Capitol building on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC, after a "Stop The Steal" rally. (Source: Shay Horse/NurPhoto)

Lessons from history

It is not unusual for false claims of electoral fraud to be repeated both across borders and between elections. For example, during the 2018 general election in Sweden, the Swedish Election Authority's website crashed during election night. When it came back online, support for the Green party had increased, while the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats had decreased by several percent. 

This change prompted election fraud claims to begin circulating on social media, but these were false. The Swedish Election Authority's website had nothing to do with counting the votes, and the results were still being funneled to several Swedish media outlets. More districts had simply been counted. 

Similarly, during the 2019 EU elections, unsubstantiated claims about ballot boxes went viral in Germany. One such claim that circulated on Facebook stated that the doors to the polling stations were briefly closed after two Alternative for Germany (AfD) voters had left the building. After that, another visitor saw an election officer with his hand inside a ballot box. The man tried to seal the box with adhesive tape, and the visitor snapped a photo supposedly showing a ballot box with broken seals and an election officer next to it. 

However, the story was contradicted by the Augsburg District Office and German fact-checkers Correctiv found the claim to be unsubstantiated. No doors were closed, and the seal was not broken, merely just not properly stuck on the ballot box.

Lastly, during the 2024 local elections in Poland, images of voting ballots circulated online which claimed to show that the box for the right-wing populist Law and Justice party had been cropped out. The images were used to claim that you could not vote for the Law and Justice party and that it was a deliberate attempt at election fraud. But the claim was false. The Polish National Research Institute report on disinformation and incidents clarified that the ballots were never issued to voters. The photos showed ballots that had been withdrawn due to creases on the ballots. 

But who is spreading these claims? Emma Ricknell told us that "influence operations by external actors can, for example, be hidden behind automated accounts, online forums where posts are anonymized, and on traditional social media through fake accounts that look genuine. The more sophisticated the campaigns run by these actors, the more posts blend into the different online environments and can, for example, make it appear that a certain opinion is much more widespread than it really is."

One observable pattern among the above examples is that all three concerned right-wing populist parties: the Sweden Democrats, the AfD in Germany and the Law and Justice Party in Poland. These parties were purported to be the victims of voter fraud, although there’s no indication that any of the organizations themselves were implicated as being behind the unsubstantiated claims that circulated. This pattern corresponds with the situation across the Atlantic, where Donald Trump and his supporters have disseminated similar claims of voter fraud misinformation, coining the phrase "Stop the Steal."

Don’t be fooled 

As the European Parliament elections draw closer, voters have several tools at their disposal to protect themselves against unsubstantiated claims of election fraud that have already been disseminated. 

"There is a great responsibility on the individual user to ensure that the information they share with others is not false, and could negatively influence others' perception of an election such as the European Parliament elections," Ricknell said. "It is often necessary to double-check the information, preferably with the help of different sources, to ensure that you are not becoming part of an influence campaign."

Logically Facts has written several articles to support this endeavor. How to fact-check: Basic skills and tools provide an introduction fact fact-checking by checking the trustworthiness of sources, how to use reverse image search, and more. Delving deeper, Image verification guide: Mastering reverse image search to uncover the truth provides an in-depth guide in image verification, which is especially useful as falsely attributed footage is one of the most common types of misinformation. Regarding AI-generated content, Logically Facts has written several articles that can help you discern whether a post or image is factual or false. 

Local fact-checking organizations are also an essential resource for each country participating in European elections, to protect local voters from falling foul of misinformation. However, the election poses challenges for fact-checkers as well. "False stories rely on well-established networks of partisan distribution and sometimes find fertile ground on misconceptions or ignorance about the way elections are administered," said Hernández Echevarría. “Some of them also present a challenge in terms of timing: a strong campaign focused on the day before the election would leave little time to investigate, debunk, and disseminate the fact-check in time to reach those who saw or could see the disinformation."

The spread of misinformation will always be faster than the fact-checker, hence a skeptical stance from the voter is just as important. Voters ought to be mindful of who the disseminator is, consider the motivations of actors online and be wary of the strong emotions of a TikTok video or an article with a headline that sounds to good to be true. 

Finally, while elections such as these can create a demanding environment for both voters and fact-checkers, they also present an opportunity. "The fact that we know these campaigns are coming is in itself an opportunity to do pre-bunking and explain to our audiences what are the current protections for electoral integrity, their alleged weaknesses, and more generally how elections work in our particular countries," said Hernández Echevarría.

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