Echo chambers — what are these and how they affect elections in Moldova
People who use their phones for social networks, games, and other mobile applications receive a notification each week informing how long they have been using Facebook, Instagram, or Telegram. The conclusion is most of the time the same: every break, during meals or before falling asleep, they check on their phones and scroll the networks.
“How social media fuels echo chambering phenomenon in Moldova and how to address it?” is a UNDP policy paper that explains this new phenomenon, in the context of elections.
We witness a shift from traditional media to social media, which may be labeled as a “new digital reality”. This reality has massively leveraged the digital momentum, by exploiting two main elements — human bias and machine learning.
Behavioral bias and algorithms contribute to developing like-minded digital spaces. These isolated virtual environments are called echo chambers.
Birds of a feather flock together
Echo chambers can be defined as environments in which the opinion, political leaning, or belief of users about a topic gets reinforced due to repeated interactions with peers or sources having similar tendencies and attitudes.
The digital and online revolution has changed the way people interact, communicate, learn, get informed and consequently elect and vote. The UNDP post-electoral Opinion Survey (2020 Presidential Elections) has concluded that social media was the third most used source of information during electoral campaign, after TV shows and spots on TV, which proves the increasing of echo-chambers phenomenon in Moldova.
In the last 5 years, news consumption habits, social media usage, as well as social media and online tactics and strategies of political parties and candidates have changed significantly.
According to the national study commissioned by Internews “Population of the Republic of Moldova on Mass Media”, 34% of the respondents have mentioned that social media is their daily most preferred source of information. Additionally, 24% of respondents perceive the information about socio-political topics published and promoted on social networks as false, while 61% think that Moldovans find difficult to extremely difficulty when it comes to differentiating fake from real news. Thus, Moldovan users and news consumers can be considered an easily manipulated and misinformed target.
One of the most important characteristic of echo chambering is that it widely present both in mature democracies and developed states, such as USA, UK, Germany and Italy, as well as in developing and democratically emerging countries — Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.
“Specific phenomenas to the online content will be increasingly visible, with multiple effects on both public institutions and users. It is extremely important to discuss, analyze and raise awareness of this phenomenon today, so that in the next years, and also for longer, to be prepared to face the new online challenges. At the same time, to capitalize on the digital dividend for enhancing democracy in Moldova“, says Natalia Vozian, expert in electoral and digital literacy and author of the policy paper.
As an emerging democracy and developing country, Moldova represents a compelling and specific case on new social/digital era and election processes.
While the phenomenon of echo chambering began to be studied quite recently, there are already several case studies on how the social media bubbles have influenced the electoral processes and outcomes.
Based on the theoretical data, global and national case studies, Natalia Vozian concludes the following:
· Echo chambering is quite a complex topic, combining both psychological, emotional, behavioral and technological elements;
· The construct of social media platforms, especially Facebook and Twitter favor the appearance and the multiplication of echo chambers;
· All the countries, irrespective of the democratic maturity and economic development, are impacted by this phenomenon;
· Although the researchers community and NGOs have started to analyze more in-depth echo chambering, private and public stakeholders need to engage also actively in discussions, joint actions and awareness raising;
· Moldova is witnessing also a quite visible digital change and shift in user habits — every third media consumer is using social platform as main source of information. Moldovans are extremely exposed to disinformation and manipulation, lately Facebook has become the most popular social media platform, while Odnoklassniki has declined both as daily usage, as well as active accounts.
· The Moldovan political landscape has adapted to the new digital reality, increasing its presence on online and social media platforms. Parties and candidates have exploited different electoral strategies and tactics, including dissemination of fake news, satire, trolling, hate speech, etc. At the same time, the preferences for group creation has favored echo chambering on Facebook and has created “favorable ground” for further polarization and social division.
· There are strong evidences that parties and candidates use, probably, the same or slightly adapted techniques for the early Parliamentary Elections 2021. The perpetuation of echo chambering, especially on Facebook is extremely likely.
Natalia Vozian has specific recommendations for the Central Electoral Commission, the Centre for Continuous Electoral Training, civil society, the media and, of course, political parties:
· Create national partnerships with both public and civic stakeholders in defending the integrity of elections against echo chambering, disinformation, hate speech, manipulation and polarization;
· Amend Electoral Code and/or other electoral related policies in order to reflect the specifics of digital electoral campaigns.
The policy paper represents only the beginning of the discussions on the echo-chambering phenomenon. Based on case studies and new data, including from the next post-electoral opinion poll conducted after the 2021 Early Parliamentary Elections, Natalia Vozian will develop a comprehensive study of this phenomenon.
For more than 10 years UNDP and its partners support the strengthening of electoral processes in Moldova. More information about the project activities can be found on undp.md/electoral-support.
The publication was produced in the framework of the project “Enhancing democracy in Moldova through inclusive and transparent elections”, implemented by the UNDP Moldova, with the generous support of the American people through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The content of this publication is the sole responsibility of the author and does not necessarily represent the views of the UNDP and USAID or the United States Government.