Monday 5 December 2022

Oxford Study: Electoral system allows politicians to camouflage the spread of ‘fake news’ in Costa Rica

Investigation concludes that reporting all kinds of services such as ‘digital marketing’ and hiring suppliers without mandatory registration makes it difficult for the TSE to oversee the actions of the groups

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3 December 2022 - At The Banks - BCCR

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QCOSTARICA – The ambiguity with which the political parties’ spending reports are written makes it difficult for citizens to monitor what type of digital services the political parties contract during electoral campaigns.

Political parties must report to the TSE all expenses they incur, including propaganda expenses, from external signs, billboards and advertisements in the media, to digital campaigns. The latter can include different types of services, but are generally reported only as “digital marketing.” Illustrative file photo.

According to research published by the University of Oxford, this “veil of opacity” makes it easier for political groups to spread false news, if they so wish, without such operations being detected.

In addition, the parties can charge the State for these operations by collecting the electoral contribution.

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“It is difficult to pinpoint the resources that are spent on cybertropas for political propaganda,” says the study, published on January 13 by the Internet Institute of the University of Oxford.

The author of the analysis on the Costa Rican case is political scientist Simone Bunse, an academic at LEAD University. The article is part of a global investigation on the manipulation of public opinion on the Internet in 81 countries around the world.

Said project calls “cybertropas” (cybertroops) the “government actors or political parties in charge of manipulating public opinion online”.

The investigation determined that the strategies used by Costa Rican politicians, trolls, and organizations to spread false news are rudimentary and of limited capacity. However, these types of actors have managed to manipulate the population with falsehoods.

Bunse emphasized the activity of cybertropas during electoral times, since it is during these periods that more false news is spread in Costa Rica.

The report indicates that, during political campaigns, the parties form small digital communication teams, which are reduced once the elections are over.

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However, little is known about the activity of these teams.

“Public information on the number of resources spent on digital marketing, data mining and the capacity of cybetropas is practically non-existent,” says the researcher.

Bunsen concluded that this lack of information is mainly due to two factors.

The first is that neither digital marketing service providers nor researchers hired by political parties need to register with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE).

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Digital marketing agencies remain outside of that legislation and operate under a “veil of opacity.”

Current regulations only require organizations that carry out public opinion surveys and studies to register with the TSE.

In addition, since 2019, the Court requires pollsters to reveal who pays for their voting intention studies.

This rule was implemented after, in the 2018 elections, the National Restoration Party published voting intention polls that registered a wide advantage in favor of then-candidate Fabricio Alvarado, without revealing that they were commissioned by the same group from the company Opol Consultores.

The business between the company and the party became public after the election.

The Oxford University study mentions this episode as an example of the ways in which different political parties have engaged in manipulation of public opinion on the Internet, by not informing the public that the studies were not independent.

Expenses camouflaged as digital marketing

The other weakness that Bunse detected is in the way in which political parties report their campaign expenses, an obligation that they must comply with every three months in non-electoral times, and monthly in the four months preceding the presidential and municipal elections.

In these reports, the parties usually report all their advertising expenses on the Internet as “digital marketing”, without specifying the contracted service.

The researcher pointed out that, in this way, many types of expenditures can be camouflaged under a generic term.

“Although the TSE reviews marketing expenses, the costs to develop trolls, for example, are hidden in the category of digital marketing,” the study states.

In fact, the report concludes that the expenses that the parties have incurred so far in activities related to “trolling” are unknown.

For Bunse, it is necessary for the TSE to broaden the control parameters of electoral expenses that are related to the Internet

“The TSE should have the power to closely monitor the digital marketing expenses reported by political parties, because it is in this category where disinformation campaigns usually hide,” the researcher told La Nación in an email.

Gustavo Román, political advisor to the Elections Tribunal, stated about the results of the study:

“The TSE values ​​the report very positively, as it provides inputs on the new ways in which political campaigns are being carried out in the country, ways that were not the usual ones when our current Electoral Code was approved (in 2009). For this reason, the TSE follows the pulse of normative developments, referring to this matter, that are being discussed in the world ”.

“The point regarding the establishment of higher precision or even registration requirements for companies or individuals offering digital marketing services. It is something that we will have to assess as a measure that is suggested in the report; assess it, like any regulatory measure in this matter, with a prospective look at its possible results.

“In other words, evaluating whether or not making the registration of the providers of these services mandatory would make transparent the real nature of the services that they actually provide to their clients.

“What is clear, for the moment, is that the TSE is in complete agreement with the author in the sense that, the country’s greatest risk being the combination of high Internet penetration with low education of Costa Ricans about its use, digital literacy and the promotion of critical thinking in the use of social networks is crucial ”.

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