The Evolving Role of Media in Elections

Publication Date: 
21 May 2015

News Type:

By Samer Elchahabi, IFES Program Manager and Adam Gallagher, IFES Editor and Writer

Free media have long been recognized as a cornerstone of democracy and play an important role in influencing political discourse during elections. When free and balanced, traditional media (print and broadcast) foster transparency and the dissemination of important electoral information. The rise of new media – such as social media sites, blogs, email and other new media platforms – provides further avenues and possibilities for participatory citizenship, information and knowledge sharing, and inclusion and empowerment. Both traditional and new media can play a vital watchdog role, and serve as a campaign platform, a forum for public debate and as a public educator, ultimately strengthening democracy. Recognizing the evolving role of media in elections, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) has increasingly employed new media in its programming to support credible and transparent elections.
 

To be sure, the media can also play a dramatically negative role in the electoral process. Many observers often point to the role media played during the 2007 Kenyan presidential election and subsequent outbreak of violence, which led to 1,133 people killed and more than 600,000 Kenyans driven from their homes, as a prominent example of the negative effects media can have during elections. A private or biased media can shape election and issue coverage to support corporate interests or provide propaganda for authoritarian regimes, subverting important democratic principles like freedom of speech and the press.

The Rise of New Media

On the other hand, new media have changed the way that candidates and their campaigns interact with citizens, providing unprecedented opportunities for two-way dialogue and interaction. In recent years, we have also seen how new media can play an important role in social change and political mobilization, with the 2011 Arab uprisings and then-Senator Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign as salient examples.

Citizens are increasingly turning to social media platforms to follow election news and developments. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 16 percent of registered American voters used social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to get political information and follow election news during the 2014 U.S. midterm elections, more than doubling the number of registered voters who used social media for the same purpose in 2010. Additionally, more and more Americans are also using cell phones to follow political news, with 28 percent of registered voters having done so in 2014.

With increasing access to the Internet around the globe, many candidates and citizens in the developing world are also turning to new media, which played a major role in the 2014 Indian elections. When Narenda Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister on May 26, 2014, he was the second most “liked” politician on Facebook in the world, trailing only President Obama. "We saw a trend, we read this trend, where the youth of the country were embracing social media as their first tool when they started using the Internet, and we made sure our presence was there," said Arvind Guptahead, head of the social media campaign for Modi’s party. In Nigeria’s recent general elections, both major presidential candidates and their parties maintained active Twitter and Facebook accounts and the Independent National Electoral Commission proactively engaged with citizens on social media to address inquiries related to the electoral process. Social media is widely credited with playing a major role in promoting transparency ahead of the vote that led to the first election of an opposition candidate for president in Nigeria’s history.

Democracy Support through New Media

Democracy promotion organizations have implemented activities supporting traditional media in developing democracies for decades. From workshops to strengthen election coverage and journalism standards in Haiti and Georgia, to manuals for journalists on how to accurately represent the voices of citizens with disabilities participating in political life in Indonesia, to supporting the establishment of media centers for election commissions in Tunisia, Yemen and Libya, IFES has an impressive track record of supporting free media in developing democracies. With the media landscape evolving, IFES has increasingly harnessed new media as part of its efforts to support democracy.

In Libya, IFES created an Electoral Access Working Group, with representatives from the Libyan General National Congress, disabled persons’ organizations, and other civil society members. In September 2013, the group launched an innovative multimedia campaign titled Zaykum Zayna (“As You Are, We Are”) that employs messaging strategies to convey democratic values of equality and support the principles espoused in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The campaign has gained traction with growing Facebook and Twitter pages that provide activists and decision-makers with information about trainings and advocacy tools. Zaykum Zayna has built on its early success and is now forming a NGO to continue to advocate for persons with disabilities in Libya.

IFES supported Burundi’s electoral authorities in establishing an early warning/early response system to provide all stakeholders with up-to-date information on incidents of electoral violence. Data is collected by a nationwide network of electoral violence monitors, transmitted to a data centralization center, verified, and posted and mapped online using the Ushahidi platform, a free and open-source software used for information collection, visualization, and interactive mapping. Established in 2010, the system has continued to be used by Burundi’s electoral authorities in preparation for elections in 2015.

In 2011 in Indonesia, IFES engaged a local civil society organization to develop Indonesia’s first ever comprehensive election information website (www.rumahpemilu.org). This bilingual (Bahasa Indonesian and English) website contains information pertaining to election laws and regulations; election results and analysis; observer and press reports; white papers and free online books; a directory of electoral stakeholders; links to other electoral sites; and a comprehensive section on international standards and best practices. During the 2014 election cycle, for both legislative and presidential elections, IFES facilitated operation of an election information center that utilized the portal’s staff for national-level media monitoring of Election Day activities. The Rumahpemilu portal was able to leverage its social media presence (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, etc.) to further expand its reach, especially to marginalized groups, researchers and those interested in details beyond what is covered in traditional media.

Similarly, in Pakistan, following the historic May 2013 general elections, IFES established a web portal (www.pakvoter.org) to serve as a source for information about Pakistan’s elections, electoral system and political processes. During the last two years, Pakvoter has built a sizeable community on social media through Facebook and Twitter forums. The website and accompanying social media pages are go-to platforms for up-to-date news and opinions. Through the portal, IFES aims to increase engagement with current and future women voters as well as youth and persons with disabilities.

In 2013, IFES organized a conference in the Philippines, entitled “eDemokrasya,” on the use of social media and technology for democracy promotion. The conference was widely discussed, trending number two on Twitter in the Philippines during the first day of the conference, hitting number one on the second day. Election stakeholders learned about trends in e-democracy practices and how these tools can be leveraged for greater collaboration and outreach to Philippine voters, especially youth.

This brief overview provides insight into the manifold efforts IFES has engaged in to employ new media to improve political and electoral processes.

At its best, new media embody the spirit of democracy, enabling citizens to hold candidates and representatives accountable, monitor electoral fraud, and engage in political debate. However, this vehicle of participatory citizenship is not without challenges, among which are issues of ethics and integrity. New media can serve as a platform for the dissemination of false or misleading information, lacking the gatekeeping processes and expertise of traditional media. The convergence of traditional and new media as means of information dissemination has raised questions regarding where to draw the line between regulation and censorship and, relatedly, how to protect freedom of expression while safeguarding against inflammatory speech. What’s more, despite the dramatic expansion of new media and technology throughout the world, there are still many groups, such as the elderly, the illiterate and the poor, with limited or no access to these resources.

Nonetheless, new media have increasingly become an integral component of the media landscape and an important outlet for candidates, political parties, election management bodies, and citizens. Despite some of the drawbacks detailed above, increased worldwide Internet access will only further the importance of new media in democracy and elections. Citizens have more avenues to reach candidates and campaigns and share information than ever, presenting new opportunities and challenges for democracy promotion and new possibilities for democratic consolidation around world.