A Risk Assessment Framework for Content Governance during Elections

Content regulation during elections presents several risks that need to be carefully considered. While ensuring a fair and transparent electoral process is crucial, the regulation of content can impact freedom of expression and the democratic ideals of open discourse. Global South countries with their own resource constrains compounded by limited investments from platforms face an even more acute problem. Election legislations are typically outdated to address myriad of challenges that arise on the Internet. Often, countries resort to emergency orders (EO) to mitigate online risks, however this is a slippery slope because EOs are frequently abused to suppress legitimate political speech. Here are some risks associated with content regulation during elections:

  1. Freedom of Expression: Content regulation has the potential to infringe upon individuals’ freedom of expression, a fundamental democratic right. Striking a balance between preventing misinformation and protecting free speech is essential to avoid stifling diverse opinions and robust political discourse.
  2. Selective Enforcement: There is a risk of bias and selective enforcement when regulating content during elections. Political biases or subjective interpretations of regulations may lead to the suppression of certain voices or perspectives, compromising the fairness and impartiality of the electoral process.
  3. Censorship and Suppression: Overly strict content regulation can inadvertently lead to censorship and the suppression of dissenting voices. Restrictive policies may silence legitimate criticism of candidates or parties, undermining the democratic principle of holding power accountable.
  4. Lack of Transparency: Content regulation policies and decision-making processes should be transparent to ensure accountability and prevent undue influence. If the mechanisms for content regulation are not clear or lack transparency, it can erode public trust in the electoral process and the regulatory authorities.
  5. Technological Challenges: Regulating content effectively during elections requires robust technological infrastructure and expertise. The scale and speed at which information is disseminated online make it challenging to monitor and regulate content in real-time. Technical limitations may result in ineffective enforcement or unintended consequences.
  6. Unintended Consequences: Content regulation measures can have unintended consequences, such as the emergence of alternative platforms or channels that escape regulation, leading to fragmented information ecosystems. Additionally, restrictions on certain types of content may drive it underground, making it harder to counter or address.

To mitigate these risks, it is crucial to develop content regulation frameworks that are fair, transparent, and uphold democratic values. This research examines the unique risks with content regulation in the Global South countries during elections and suggests a cost-effective framework for election commissions, platforms and civil society to address these concerns. Key considerations should include clear and precise definitions of prohibited content, independent oversight mechanisms, transparent decision-making processes, and mechanisms for redress and appeals. Collaboration with civil society organizations, media outlets, and technology platforms can help ensure diverse perspectives are considered and minimize the risks of unintended consequences. Striking a balance between combating misinformation and safeguarding freedom of expression is essential to maintain the integrity of elections while respecting democratic principles.