A first look at the OAS’s recommendations for best practices against electoral misinformation, Part 1

The Organization of American States (OAS) has studied the phenomenon of misinformation during election cycles in Mexico, Colombia and Brazil to create a list of best practices to be taken by powerful actors across the continent. In a new report that has yet to be publicly released, an OAS panel of experts advises leaders how they should prepare for the threat of false news throughout election periods. Suggestions range from protecting private data and abstaining from creating vague laws that can be used for censorship to emphasizing the importance of universal access to the Internet. Promoting transparency around the electoral process is also a must-have for OAS. 

The OAS is comprised of 35 member states, including Canada and the United States.

The International Fact-Checking Network obtained* the latest draft of the report, “Disinformation in Electoral Contexts: A guide to address the spread of misinformation based on Inter-American standards.” Below are summaries of the OAS’s suggestions for executive, legislative and judiciary powers, as well as commentary from Edison Lanza, a special rapporteur for freedom of expression at the OAS. This is the first of a two-part series. You can read the guidelines for political parties, intermediary companies and media organizations here.

Best practices for the legislative power

  1. Avoid creating last-minute and probably ambiguous laws to fight mis/disinformation.
  2. Remember that those who share false information because they lack adequate knowledge shouldn’t be punished in the same way as those who do so clearly aware of what they are up to.
  3. Strengthen protections for personal data to prevent platforms and other stakeholders from misusing personal information to spread false news. Citizens should be able to control how their data is or will be used.
  4. Strengthen legal channels so that they may protect the right to freedom of expression, but also take action against abusive cases when necessary. It is important to find a way to discern whether the original source of the information had the intention of harming, and also to be fast, accurate and efficient in these scenarios.
  5. Strengthen laws related to electoral advertising. The OAS suggests the Legislative Power demand more transparency from digital ads bought by parties during campaigns.

“The recommendations from the expert panel aim to avoid a penal response as a reaction to the phenomenon of misinformation,” Lanza said. 

In an e-mail sent to the IFCN, he emphasized that regulations on the spread and expression of information can easily be manipulated by powerful people to silence criticism. So until governments are able to understand the phenomenon of misinformation more exactly, this response is dangerous to democracy. 

“The recommendations have more to do with updating legal frameworks on the protection of personal data and their application to the digital world or updating the obligations for transparency in electoral marketing/campaigning.” 

Best practices for the judiciary power

  1. Consider the impact of judiciary decisions on the internet as a whole. It is important to take all human rights into account when denouncing a post, article, photo, video or audio clip as a piece of mis/disinformation. Judges should fully understand the impact of blocking or filtering access to certain online content, and ensure their decisions are clear, precise and legitimate. They must be aware that taking content down could be seen as censorship.
  2. In every case, it is essential to clearly point out the damage caused by the mis/disinformation, guarantee the right to justice and make sure the sentence is strictly related to the questioned content. Judges should avoid generic sentences.

Best practices for the executive power

  1. The executive power should remember its own responsibilities as far as spreading content. The OAS alerts that, in the Americas, it is quite common to see mis/disinformation coming from high-level executive members during campaigns.
  2. Make sure official speeches are accurate and based on facts, especially during electoral campaigns.
  3. Make sure high-level officials don’t disrespect journalists or promote attacks against them or media outlets.
  4. Stimulate media literacy projects since, in many American countries, the state runs the education system. The executive power should develop campaigns to make citizens aware of the issue of mis/disinformation, and also of the tools available to verify whether something is true.
  5. Promote universal access to the internet. The OAS understands that in the fight against mis/disinformation, the citizen should be able to access the internet and reach all sources of information he/she can to fact-check and compare data. This means the executive power should work to abolish arbitrary barriers that exist in some countries that might be keeping citizens from accessing infrastructure, technology and online information.
  6. Strengthen the electoral process by making sure there is plenty of information publicly available about the voting process. In many American countries, mis/disinformation regarding this topic was seen in recent months.
  7. Teach all officials who will be dealing with the voting process to be ready to fight mis/disinformation related to the election itself. By doing so, the impact of false news might be smaller and controlled quicker. 
  8. Establish long-lasting communication channels with all the stakeholders involved in the electoral process to make sure information countering false flows.
  9. Develop cooperative agreements between platforms and companies to make sure they will also work against the spread of mis/disinformation throughout the electoral process. Maintain a long-lasting channel of communication with them, reminding them that all stakeholders should be aware of human rights.

“In on hand, we cannot forget that the government has an obligation to offer and publicize the information that it possesses,” Lanza noted. “In the other hand, it is important to notice that many high functionaries use the expression of fake news to attack or discredit journalists and media in a way that undermines the role of the press in a democracy. They also expose journalists to risks of attacks or violence.”

Lanza also explained that electoral authorities, though not usually obligated to inform and educate the public, should keep an “attitude of permanent vigilance” towards the circulation of information that can harm electoral processes. 

“It’s not a matter of controlling or influencing what media platforms do, he said, “but of having agile channels of communication in critical periods of time in order to be able to react to the deliberate dissemination of misinformation about candidates, parties and elections themselves.”

* Note: “Disinformation in Electoral Contexts: A guide to address the spread of misinformation based on Inter-American standards” is the result of a long-term study done by OAS’s Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression, OAS’s Department of International Law and OAS’s Department of Electoral Cooperation and Observation. Meetings pertaining to this guide began on June 5, 2018. IFCN associate director Cristina Tardáguila, then the founder of Agência Lupa in Brazil, participated in one of those meetings in Mexico.