COVID-19 as an accelerator for information operations in elections

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Figure 1. Internet penetration in 2020: The Covid-19 pandemic moves economic, political and social activities online and creates pressures to reduce the remaining digital divide fast and further grow the global village. 
Source: The authors based on data from;

In the 1960s, the Canadian professor Marshall McLuhan coined the term global village[1] to refer to the interconnectedness of the planet that came along with advances in communications that allowed information to reach all corners of the world in real-time.

In 2020, the World Health Organization introduced the term infodemic[2] to describe the huge volume of information, often misleading, disseminated in the context of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

As this infodemic sweeps through the global village it acts as an accelerator for information operations in elections and creates the need for election managers to develop new strategies and responses to a range of online challenges.

In the current world landscape, an increasing and free flow of information is a necessity and competitive advantage. However, social media and online platforms have converted parts of the global information streams from an asset to a weapon of asymmetric warfare. On the online battlefield the vast majority of citizens are waking up in a war that they do not understand and does not even belong to them. In this confrontation, well-crafted propaganda can undermine democracy, opaquely tilt level political playing fields, change the faith of nations, and potentially impact the world order.

We know the essential role of free, independent and reliable media to maintain a healthy democratic environment[3] in the context of an information ecosystem that is constantly and intensively polluted. While traditional media such as TV, radio and newspapers remain an important source of information, we see falls in advertising revenue leaving these outlets under-resourced and we can see these outlets drowned out by less reliable online information sources.

Cyber threats and cyber-enabled information operations

The 2016 US presidential elections alongside the ‘Brexit’ referendum on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union (EU) brought these dynamics to global public attention. This led to an international debate on elections security with cyber-security and disinformation as central topics.

While in 2016 the US specifically experienced a seamless mix of hacking attacks and information operations, it soon became clear that a distinction between technological cyber threats and cyber-enabled information operations is essential for properly addressing both of them. Tackling each involves different resources in terms of strategy, human expertise and means.

For preventing hacking attacks and consolidating technical cybersecurity in elections, interagency collaboration has proven to be essential, and there are already many promising global examples[4] of election administrators working together with other national authorities and government bodies on measures such as information sharing, exchange of experiences, scenario planning and emergency response.

When it comes to securing a level electoral playing field and shielding democracy against online information operations arguably less progress has been made. Not least due to the need to carefully design any measures such that they do not endanger freedom of speech and due to the difficulty of distinguishing genuine pollical actors and legitimate online activity from foreign interference and other rogue actors. Caught in-between are citizens whose awareness and online literacy is falling behind the rapid developments in this area.  

Also here a collaborative approach involving electoral management bodies, regulators, online platforms and civil society has been identified as a useful starting point. But much more needs to be done to achieve a better understanding of the magnitude of this problem, its impact on democracy and counter measures that are effective without being a threat to democracy themselves.

Adding the Covid-19 to the mix

With many elections postponed and others held in special conditions[5], the COVID-19 pandemic created new entry points for information operations. It further amplified the impact of disinformation campaigns on a public that hardly built a limited level of resilience against this threat. This creates an increasingly favourable ground for malicious actors to escalate the already existing polarization by correlating it with the fear of the new disease, fears about permanently losing fundamental rights and liberties, and worries about the economic impact of the pandemic.

As scientific research only makes slow progress compared to the speed with which the new disease spreads, citizens are exposed to an overabundance of information that is not only contradictory but also manipulated at unprecedented levels. Processing the sheer amount of this content is very difficult and can increase the distrust against institutions and experts.

The immediate health risk of participating in elections associated with the COVID-19 outbreak puts even more pressure on the electorate's decision-making capacity, and one of the most undesirable consequences is abstention.

The impact on electoral contestants …

The benefits of the online communication channels for voters, parties, candidates and EMBs are undeniable. They provide a favourable framework for public and participative debates, encouraging participatory citizenship. Candidates seeking to closely control their message may experience online media as a challenge, but by large political competitors recognize its huge potential for rallying support for their electoral campaigns, especially in times of pandemic, when in-person interaction has been limited.

With this online media and especially social media have become a dominant arena for public communications and the majority of the politicians understood that they have to use its features as primary means of engaging the electorate.

However, electoral contestants face the risk of losing an important part of the electoral capital by being slandered, suffering major image and credibility damage as a result of denigration campaigns based on false information.

… and some conclusions for EMBs

For EMBs, challenges related to the infodemic can be identified across the entire electoral cycle. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the focus of external and domestic bad actors could be on generating confusion on electoral procedures, given the last moment changes implemented as part of the measures to contain the spread of the virus. Hence, it is of critical importance that EMBs consolidate a trust-based relation with voters and other stakeholders, and make sure they remain regarded as a primary, reliable source. This can be achieved by:

  • Understanding technical cyber security issues and cyber-enabled online information operations as two distinct challenges, each requiring distinct resources and countermeasures. What both cyber-related threats have in common is that related responsibilities are commonly shared between multiple agencies. As each agency may only have expertise for one piece of the puzzle and many grey areas exist, inter-agency collaboration becomes essential for effective responses.
  • Utilizing the new online environment, and particularly social media as platforms for informing and educating the voters on how to exercise their democratic rights in times of pandemic safely. EMBs have to develop skills and strategies for disseminating their messages on promoting free, fair and transparent electoral processes and for navigating through the informational smog without becoming another one of its victims.
  • Expecting the trend towards political online advertising to get further accelerated by the pandemic and the need for meaningful regulation and oversight to increase. This will in turn make it ever more important for EMBs to cooperate with other agencies, including specifically telecom, media, and advertising regulators. It will also create the need for EMBs to build their capacities in this area and utilize opportunities to exchange experiences[6] with their peers regionally and globally.

Source: The authors

Acknowledging that despite all efforts that may be undertaken there is no such thing as immunity against manipulation of the information space though disinformation. Although there is no panacea for this multifaceted issue and the solution is composed of various correlated measures that all have something in common: education (for institutions and citizens alike).

[1] A phrase with predominantly negative connotations used by Marshall McLuhan in The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man, written in 1961 and first published in Canada, Toronto University Press, 1962.
[2] “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic” stated the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus during a meeting with foreign policy and security experts in Munich, Germany, in February.
United Nations, UN tackles ‘infodemic’ of misinformation and cybercrime in COVID-19 crisis, 31 March 2020, <>, accessed 24 August 2020
[3] International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, The Global State of Democracy 2019: Addressing the Ills, Reviving the Promise <>, accessed 31 August 2020
[4] van de Staak, S and Wolf, P (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, 2019), Cybersecurity in Elections, Models of Interagency Collaboration, <>, accessed 23 August 2020
[5] International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, Global overview: The impact of COVID-19 on elections, 18 March 2020, <>, accessed 25 August 2020



This commentary was initially published in the Association of European Election Officials (ACEEEO)'s Elections in Europe 15th Volume.
Disclaimer: Views expressed in this commentary are those of the authors. This commentary is independent of specific national or political interests. Views expressed do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.


About the Author

FORMER Seconded National Expert (PEA Romania)
Ingrid Bicu

Ingrid Bicu is currently serving as expert on emerging challenges, strategic communications and elections at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), seconded by the Permanent Electoral Authority of Romania.

About the Author

Senior Expert
Peter Wolf

Peter Wolf works for the global Electoral Processes team at the International IDEA Head Office in Stockholm, Sweden. His work focuses on the application of digital technologies in elections, emerging challenges and the sustainable and trusted implementation of ICTs in electoral processes.