How to investigate messaging apps and social media for electoral disinformation

Dec 11, 2023 in Combating Mis- and Disinformation
Investigating electoral disinformation

Forty countries, from the U.S. and India, to Russia, Taiwan and more, will hold national elections in 2024. 

Amid the rise of electoral mis- and disinformation alongside them, especially on social media platforms and messaging apps such as Facebook, TikTok, WhatsApp and Telegram, investigating the source of the false content and who’s funding it, is an important, challenging task.

Journalist Patricia Campos Mello, a columnist at Brazil’s Folha de S. Paulo, and ProPublica reporter Craig Silverman have both researched and reported extensively on the spread of disinformation on messaging apps and social media, especially during elections.

In two ICFJ Disarming Disinformation: Investigative master classes, Campos Mello and Silverman drew on their experiences to share tips for journalists investigating the drivers of disinformation. They discussed how to look into political ads on social media platforms and who’s funding them, as well as the wide-scale use of messaging apps for spreading false or misleading content, and more.

Here’s their advice for journalists:

Join public WhatsApp and Telegram channels and groups

Journalists can join public groups on WhatsApp and Telegram, or collaborate with think tanks and universities monitoring these groups, to investigate false narratives, suggested Campos Mello: “Try to detect [...] the issues that are being discussed [...] to understand what people are talking about.” To safeguard your identity and to avoid becoming a target, try to use different phone numbers when joining groups. 

Both WhatsApp and Telegram offer one-way broadcasting channels, as well. This feature, Campos Mello cautioned, can be used to spread disinformation to large numbers of people. Journalists should join relevant channels as part of their efforts to track false information, she said. 

During Brazil’s 2018 elections, large amounts of disinformation and political propaganda spread on social media and messaging apps at an “astonishing speed,” said Campos Mello. Ahead of the country’s 2022 elections, former president Jair Bolsonaro claimed – falsely, without evidence – that voting machines were rigged. These claims reached Bolsonaro supporters via social media and messages on WhatsApp and Telegram.

Investigate ad libraries

Meta, TikTok and Google all operate repositories of active and past ads on their platforms. Journalists can use these ad libraries to investigate who is funding ads. 

Meta’s ad library archives ads about social issues, elections and politics for seven years. Users  advertising about these topics must register, confirm their identities, prove that they are based in the country they want to advertise in, and more. Meta doesn’t archive non-political ads, so those are only visible when active.

If an unregistered advertiser runs political or social issue ads, Meta may flag and archive them – if it doesn’t miss them. “Ads that have not been registered as political or social issue ads, or those that have been missed by Meta, disappear the second the campaign stops,” cautioned Silverman.

TikTok’s ad library has many of the same features as Meta’s, except it archives all ads for a year after they were last viewed by any user. The platform officially prohibits election-related and political ads. However, like Meta, it doesn’t always detect these ads; it’s therefore crucial to regularly check the library for ads that fit this description. 

TikTok also has a Creative Center, which shows what's trending on the platform. “Maybe this is another way to actually spot ads that you might not have thought about searching or finding,” said Silverman. 

Users on Facebook and TikTok are able to search by keyword. “If you want to do a keyword search for any ads that have the phrase ‘stolen election,’ you can do that in the Meta Ad Library and see if anybody managed to run an ad with the phrase,” suggested Silverman. 

Google also allows advertisers to publish political and election-related ads. Google’s ad library is, however, more limited than Meta’s and TikTok’s, according to Silverman. The biggest limitation, he said, is the inability to conduct a keyword search: users can search by advertiser or website name, but not by a quote or phrase. 

All three libraries have filtering features that enable searches based on country, ad category (e.g., housing, employment, elections, or politics), and more. 

Silverman suggested making a list of political candidates, politically active groups and keywords that you might want to investigate. Monitor the libraries regularly, especially during election season: “Ads will come and go in these ad libraries. Not all of them are archived and stay there forever,” said Silverman.

Look into junk news sites

Junk news sites – those that host news that is ideologically extreme, hyper-partisan or filled with propaganda, are often financing themselves with Google ads or Taboola, said Campos Mello. 

An investigation by Campos Mello found that these junk sites have spread electoral disinformation in Brazil. 

Journalists should track these sites to monitor the false information they may be spreading around elections, and how they're being financed.

Read up on countries’ and social media platforms’ guidelines

Countries have different regulations around political advertising. These may include, for instance, rules regarding when political campaigns can start running ads for elections. Journalists should monitor if advertising on social media platforms is carried out in accordance with these policies. 

Tech companies have their own guidelines, as well. These tend to address the nature of content in the ads, whether it was artificially generated, and more. For example, Meta will require advertisers to disclose their use of AI, and will block new political, electoral and social issue ads during the final week ahead of the U.S. elections.

Meta’s policy also bans any ads that incite violence or falsely claim that elections are rigged. “[By using the] ad library […] we could see that not only were they not enforcing [the moderation policy] properly, but they were monetizing ads that were inciting violence,” said Campos Mello referring to activity on the platform during the 2022 Brazilian election.

Journalists should monitor whether tech companies are enforcing their own moderation policies, advised Campos Mello. 

Collaborate and follow the money

Collaboration can accelerate investigative efforts, noted Campos Mello: “Sometimes you as a reporter don't have enough power to process all this information. When you partner with a university or think tank, you combine the efforts.”

Earlier this year, on January 8, supporters of former President Jair Bolsonaro, stormed Brazil's Congress following his election loss. Messages on WhatsApp and Telegram had urged Brazilians to go to Brasilia to carry out the attack. Campos Mello used WhatsApp and Telegram monitors developed by the University of Minas Gerais to help track related fundraising efforts, financial transactions, and the actors behind them.

Journalists can replicate efforts like this when investigating disinformation narratives around elections in their own countries and globally. 

Disarming Disinformation is run by ICFJ with lead funding from the Scripps Howard Foundation, an affiliated organization with the Scripps Howard Fund, which supports The E.W. Scripps Company’s charitable efforts. The three-year project will empower journalists and journalism students to fight disinformation in the news media.

Photo by cottonbro studio via Pexels.