There is no democracy without a source of information in which a strong majority can have confidence. Here are two stories from this week that illustrate the point.
Just hours ago, Emmerson Mnangagwa of the governing Zanu-PF party was declared the winner of Monday’s hotly disputed presidential election in Zimbabwe. Trouble began early in the week when opposition leader Nelson Chamisa, confident the vote was rigged against him, took to Twitter to declare victory. His words triggered street celebrations that were met with force by police.
Social media accounts, many of them fake, have added to the confusion with competing claims about what’s happening. Vote counts for parliamentary elections favored the ruling ZANU-PF, provoking outrage from its critics. But results of Monday’s presidential election were delayed until the very early hours of Friday morning, raising doubts about the credibility of the entire process. African and Western election observers have disagreed about the scale of irregularities and the extent of unfair treatment of the opposition. Chamisa vows to challenge the results in court.
In a situation like this, how can voters have confidence in the information they hear? The ruling party has stolen elections many times before. The opposition claimed victory without hard evidence to back the claim. It’s impossible to separate fact from fiction online, and outsiders can’t agree on what to say.
Meanwhile, Facebook is back in the news this week, with an announcement it discovered 32 false pages and profiles that were created as part of a sophisticated disinformation campaign ahead of US midterm elections in November. Posts and ads centered on topics like race, feminism and fascism. In this case, the content was reportedly created to generate anger toward President Trump.
Facebook says there is already information linking the campaign to the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-backed organization that sowed confusion on its platform before the 2016 US presidential election. The real concern according to Facebook is that those responsible have gotten much better over the past two years at camouflaging themselves.
That raises two big questions: If this is what Facebook has found, what hasn’t it found? And what about Twitter, Google, and others?
The bottom line: Access to reliable information is now a critical issue in democracies of all shapes and sizes.