Elections 2024

Crucial year for media and “Big Tech”

Almost one third of the global population will cast their vote in 2024. Will the results change the dynamics of the current world order? And how will media be able to preserve and uphold democratic values?

Around the world, more than 2 billion voters in over 50 countries will head to the polls during 2024.

Some voters live in either the world’s most powerful democracy (US), the oldest democracy (UK), the biggest democracy (India) or the world’s largest Muslim democracy (Indonesia). When you consider their combined impact on global politics, I think it is fair to state that the impending global order will be determined by voters in the coming months.

As a media expert and IMS’ regional media adviser for Asia, I am taking particular interest in the elections in Asia. The intention of this piece is to shed a light on the dynamics of Asia in the backdrop of upcoming “super election year of 2024”.

Apart from India, several other Asian nations that are important in both global and regional regards are also holding elections: India’s rival nuclear power, Pakistan; Bangladesh, one of the fastest growing countries in south Asia has already voted in January; and recently bankrupt Sri Lanka are among them. In a southeast Asian context, Indonesia, – being the biggest democracy in the region – will reshape the regional dynamics with its election.

In all these elections, digital platforms – mainly social media – are predicted to be the most influential platforms. With more than half the world’s social media users, more than 68 percent internet penetration and more than half the world’s smart phone users, the region has become an epicentre of digital media. This will manifest through the upcoming elections, in no uncertain terms. Mis-, dis- and mal- (MDM) information, hate speech, political trolling, bullying and online harassment will be buzzwords. 

These rapid digital expansions have not developed in parallel with necessary requirements such as general literacy rates or media and information literacy (MIL), which are fundamental requirements in creating an informed voter base and citizenry. In contrast, the rapid growth of technology can have a major impact on upcoming elections, says Aftab Alam, the Executive Director of Pakistani based media law research entity Irada.

“In a country where cellphone tele-density is more than 79.44 percent and 3G/4G internet penetration is around 55 percent, social media will have a massive role during the general elections. With a literacy rate below 60 percent and lack of media and information literacy among the masses, disinformation/ misinformation by the political and non-political groups can play havoc. Besides, government can also misuse cyber laws to clamp down dissenting voices over internet in the name of blocking disinformation/misinformation,” says Aftab.

Monitoring crucial

India is already in the game of manipulating social media content through its gigantic influence on dominant tech companies and also through newly introduced guidelines and legal amendments. In fact, the conduct and responses of dominant tech companies are an interesting case study. For example, Meta in India has more than 20 percent of market share with at least 490 million users (which is expected to grow up to 950 million by 2040) and so Meta in India does not want to compromise its massive market base in order to protect democratic values. In fact, the ruling Bharatiya Janatha Party (BJP) is the biggest advertiser on Facebook.

“So can someone expect Meta to go against BJP government in defending press freedom? It is a mere joke,” said a senior journalist in Bangalore who did not want to be identified. In a country where 90 percent of mainstream media is compromised, social media is the only way for the people to receive accurate information, but now it is also somewhat compromised due to massive business interests of “Big Tech”, she added.

Considering all of the above, the Internet Freedom Foundation (IFF) of India has launched a programme where tech accountability and integrity are monitored in the run up to the elections. “As authoritarian threats to user rights on social media platforms increase, accountability of these platforms to their users must be upheld. A comprehensive, transparent and accurate assessment of the impact on human rights of users is one way through which platforms do so. Considering the upcoming 2024 general elections, this series aims to assess the reporting on human rights’ impact undertaken and released by significant platforms, with a specific focus on the Indian context, IFF said in its website when launching the programme.

In countries like Sri Lanka and Indonesia, religious nationalism will run high during the electioneering process, but platforms may find it difficult to deal with such content mainly due to the language issues. In Indonesia, dominant tech companies have already locked horns with local mainstream media companies about revenue share of news content. The absence of a solution will affect election-related news content as well. Bangladesh voted on 7 January, an election marred by hate speech campaigns against political rivals and draconian digital safety legislation used against dissenting voices, including journalists. 

The most worrying fact to me is the lukewarm attitude of the dominant tech companies, which always come up with excuses such as “lack of resources”. We need a collective mobilisation of all stakeholders to deal with issues, and tech platforms need to play a proactive role, along with respective governments and civil societies. In Sri Lanka, a pilot exercise called Truth Square during 2019 elections saw the elections commission, civil society, social media monitors, political parties and tech platforms mobilised in countering MDM information and hate speech. The project, which was supported by IMS, was a major success; the elections commissioner himself hailed the effort in his post-election public speeches. Such practices must be shared in the region and should inspire the dominant tech companies to facilitate such efforts.  

  • At least 40 countries will be holding national-level elections in 2024.
  • According to the Economist, a total of 76 countries – accounting for more than four billion people, a majority of the world’s population – will hold some form of polling this year.