Combating Social Media Misinformation in Political Campaigns: A Pre-emptive Strategy

Incorporating Pre-emptive Debunking into social media planning is essential in the modern political landscape.

As the US election approaches and a potential Australian election looms, the power of misinformation on social media cannot be underestimated. Misinformation has always been a part of political discourse, but the advent of social media has amplified its reach and impact. It can spread like wildfire, significantly manipulating public opinion by targeting emotions and exploiting existing biases. The 2016 US election serves as a stark reminder of this, with Russian interference through social media aiming to sow discord and influence voter perceptions. Tactics included spreading false information about candidates, using bots to amplify divisive content, and creating fake social media profiles to manipulate discussions.

In Australia, the Voice to Parliament referendum also saw social media spread misinformation playing a significant role in shaping public discourse and opinions. False claims, such as the assertion that the High Court would enforce Voice recommendations upon Parliament, were spread to influence voters.

We must accept that misinformation on social media is now an integral part of any election campaign or any policy move on a contentious public issue. This acceptance means that combating misinformation should be a standard component of social media campaign planning.

The Necessity of Pre-emptive Strategies

The key to effectively combating misinformation is to consider potential falsehoods that may flood social channels as part of the planning process for any policy release & develop a Pre-emptive Debunking plan to counteract misinformation efforts before they reach the electorate.

Pre-emptive strategies differ from reactive debunking efforts. While myth-busting & fact checking is important and can be effective, it is widely acknowledged that it is more challenging to correct misinformation once it has taken root in the public psyche. The example of rapper Briggs’ video for the Voice to Parliament highlights this. Despite its viral success, it came too late; the misinformation it aimed to debunk had already taken hold.

The Science Behind Pre-emptive Debunking

Sander van der Linden, a professor of social psychology at the University of Cambridge, emphasises the importance of pre-emptive debunking. This involves providing people with information that inoculates them against false information before they encounter it. This approach is akin to a vaccine: exposing people to a weakened form of misinformation helps them build resistance to it. For instance, during the US election, Twitter (prior to Musk’s ownership) sent messages to the top of users’ feeds, warning them about potential misinformation they might see on the platform regarding mail-in voting and pre-emptively provided factual information to counteract false claims.

Implementing a Pre-emptive Debunking Social Strategy

Identify Potential Misinformation: Trend analysis and a look back at past discourse will help outline possible falsehoods that might emerge about policies or issues being released to the public.

Develop Pre-emptive social strategy: Create social campaigns that proactively inform the public about falsehoods they might encounter and provide the facts, using the same platforms where misinformation is likely to spread.

Use Trusted Voices: Engage credible voices to disseminate accurate information, as they are more likely to be trusted by the public.

Incorporating pre-emptive debunking strategy into social media planning is essential in the modern political landscape. By anticipating misinformation and addressing it before it can take root, we can better protect the integrity of public discourse and ensure that voters recognise misinformation when they encounter it, thereby making informed decisions based on facts, not falsehoods.