European elections: Top tips to avoid misinformation

European elections: Top tips to avoid misinformation

Many have called 2024 the ‘year of elections’ - and for good reason: at least 64 countries are heading or have already headed to the polls this year.

This includes the US - which will hold a presidential election in November - and more likely than not the UK - which is required to have a general election before the end of January 2025.

The same goes for the European Union. Parties from across the political spectrum will be out in full force to claim as many seats as possible in the European Parliament election in June.

With such important polls being held this year on the continent and beyond, the stage is also unfortunately set for huge swathes of dubious claims to be spread both on the campaign trail and online.

The Cube spoke to experts to find out where you’re most likely to spot fake news and what some of the best ways are that you can ward off any misinformation.

What are the biggest sources of misinformation?

During elections, fake news can come in many different forms.

You might come across rumours both on and offline about particular candidates and their policies; you may hear conspiracy theories about nefarious figures trying to influence the election from the outside; or you might even come face to face with deep fakes - digitally edited photos and videos designed to show politicians in an unflattering light.

Misinformation often presents itself as legitimate news, taking the form of articles or professional photos, and can come from a range of sources.

The biggest three sources are politicians, those with a financial incentive to spread misleading claims, and even ourselves, according to Yotam Ophir, assistant professor in the Department of Communication at the University at Buffalo.

“Misinformation often comes from the elites themselves,” he said. “We’ve seen it in the United States: most misinformation on the alleged election fraud in 2020 came from [former US President Donald] Trump himself and from the Republican Party.”

A giant canvas promoting the European elections is seen on the European Parliament Thursday, April 11, 2024 in Strasbourg, eastern France.
A giant canvas promoting the European elections is seen on the European Parliament Thursday, April 11, 2024 in Strasbourg, eastern France. - Jean-Francois Badias/Copyright 2024 The AP. All rights reserved.

Regarding those who spread false narratives for financial gain, Ophir said television channels such as Fox News make “quite a lot of money” from promoting a very specific point of view.

“But it can also be all kinds of misinformation, entrepreneurs, clickbait websites, conspiracy podcasts and so on,” he said. “Those are the people who have made a career out of promoting wrong information.”

As for the public, Ophir noted people can often unintentionally spread erroneous information to their friends and family.

"Sometimes we get an article and it seems very surprising, very emotional, and we want to share it with others,” he said. “We want to hear what our friends are thinking about it. Sometimes the headline is so engaging that we don't even open up the article before sharing it with others.”

“So if we can practise some caution and be more prudent with the information we share, that will also help us reduce misinformation during those times,” he added.

Be critical, but not cynical

One of the most important ways to avoid falling foul of fake news is by viewing everything with a critical eye.

It’s always a good idea to check where a claim or piece of news has come from. If things seem too good to be true - or too bad to be true if it’s a claim about someone’s political opponent - then it’s worth taking a step back and double-checking, according to experts.

It’s important to not cross the line from being critical to becoming cynical, however.

“Cynicism is where you begin to say ‘everybody is lying, I can’t trust anyone’,” Ophir told The Cube. “Some of us are moving towards that kind of position in recent years, and I see it as a very dangerous place for democracy to be in.”

"We need to learn how to listen to those who want to benefit the public good, and to ignore those who are trying to promote themselves for financial or political gain," he continued.

“So be sceptical, but don’t be cynical. It’s a fine line between the two, but an important one to keep.”

Use reliable, nonpartisan sources

Trustworthy, neutral sources of news and information are key.

Experts say that rather than just accepting what political candidates say verbatim, listening to random people online or consuming news from just one side of the political spectrum, it’s best to rely on well-known, nonpartisan organisations.

Both the left and the right have their own share of sources and outlets dedicated to skewing news coverage to benefit them, so some suggest regularly checking in on more neutral news sites.

“It could be the Associated Press, for example, or AFP,” Ophir said. “Those are agencies that do not make financial gains or political gains from the information that they spread.”

“The same goes for nonpartisan fact-checking websites,” he added. “So if you can find sources like these that are not inherently motivated to promote specific types of information, you are in a safer place.”

It’s also crucial to rely on fact-checkers when dealing with deep fakes. Studies show that the naked human eye is not capable of consistently identifying digitally altered videos and photos, so it’s best to check in with trusted verification outlets.

Trust the experts

Similarly, when in doubt about a particular talking point that might pop up during an election campaign, it’s best to listen to the experts, according to Ophir.

“These days, people have a tendency to try and do their own research, which is admirable on one level, but it's going to lead to a lot of confusion and misinformation on the other,” he said.

“Most of us are not capable of understanding complicated issues, complicated legislation, or complicated political processes,” Ophir added. “We need those mediators.”

For much of history, journalists and the mass media acted as those mediators, sifting through large amounts of information to summarise them for the general audience in an objective and reliable way.

While many have lost faith in the media in recent years, Ophir said part of the challenge now is for journalists to regain that trust and direct people to more reliable sources.

If the other side is evil, if the other side is illegitimate, then anything I hear about them online will make sense to me.

Respect democracy

Misinformation breeds intolerance, so it’s important to respect democracy and refrain from demonising the other side.

Even if we disagree with what our political opponents are saying, we still need to accept them as a legitimate political force, according to Ophir.

“Once you lose the tolerance for the other side, you open up the door to a lot of misinformation, because if the other side is evil, if the other side is illegitimate, then anything I hear about them online will make sense to me,” he said.

“We should avoid losing the basic respect for their legitimacy,” Ophir added. “You don’t have to agree with the other side, but you should accept them as politically legitimate … which will also reduce our susceptibility to misinformation.”