Learn more about our mission

The new misinformation around elections

Ever since the 2020 US presidential election when Donald Trump brought false concerns about voter fraud to the mainstream, many other countries have followed suit. 

With elections happening in Ireland and around the world in 2024 and 2025 -  at least 50 countries and over 4 billion people go to the polls in 2024 - there are real concerns about the scale of this misinformation and what impact it could have not just on the results but also for democracy

Research into this kind of misinformation has found that false stories frequently begin in the days before polling day and mushroom on the day of a vote and afterwards. They can look minor - a photograph from a polling booth asking if the ballot box is really secure, for example, or a claim that people who shouldn’t be allowed to vote are being allowed to - but they are often designed to be shared widely on social media. 

Mistakes can happen in elections, but with Ireland voting in every type of election possible across 2024 and 2025 - local, European, general and presidential, as well as a number of referendums - it is timely to know what this misinformation can look like and how to spot it.

What we hear and read

The thing about election misinformation is that it is a relatively new problem for many countries, including Ireland. 

You can almost pinpoint the trigger for when it started, in fact: since the 2020 US presidential election, it has become clear that false stories about elections being rigged and votes not being counted properly have begun to be shared more widely across the world. 

Donald Trump’s repeated claim that the election was stolen from him has filtered down to the public: just 29% of Republicans say that they believe Joe Biden’s win was legitimate.

A 'Trump won' flag, seen in Atlanta, August 2023. Source: Alamy

While other countries have not seen such dramatic claims from a senior politician, they have seen an increasing volume of smaller ones. One of the most interesting studies into this has shown the scale and the depth of the problem. 

At the start of 2023, researchers at the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO) began to keep track of false stories and narratives about elections in European countries which had elections that year. Overall, they tracked 11 elections in 10 different countries across the year. 

The results were striking: every single country across Europe saw misinformation being shared about the election. 

Their analysis found that these false stories being shared on social media and messaging platforms were about voter fraud, foreign influences and unfair practices.

In Estonia, for example, a Facebook post was widely shared which claimed that voters should not use the writing instrument provided at polling stations because it was ‘erasable’ and voters should instead bring their own pen. In Turkey, a story was shared about a false statement by a German MP that part of a mosque in Istanbul would be demolished if outgoing president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was not reelected. 

Ultimately, the researchers found, these stories had the apparent goal of delegitimising the elections: making it seem like the results were invalid or that the people who were voted in had won by shady practices, decreasing the trust that people have in their government and other authorities. 

These stories took the form of photos, videos, memes and audio files, and were shared in the way you’d expect: on social media, particularly on X, and on messaging platforms like X. This could change, though: a lot of the attention about election misinformation focuses on the problems that could be coming down the tracks, especially when it comes to AI. 

What to expect from AI

Britain’s national intelligence and security organisation recently warned about the threat of advanced deepfakes in its upcoming election. 

“The next election will be the first to take place against the backdrop of significant advances in AI,” the National Cyber Security Centre noted in its annual report for 2023

It described how “AI-created hyper-realistic bots will make the spread of disinformation easier and the manipulation of media for use in deepfake campaigns will likely become more advanced”.  

The first big viral example of this was when filmmaker Jordan Peele made a deepfake of Barack Obama warning about the dangers of AI and describing Donald Trump as ‘a total and complete dipshit’. But there are other ways that AI can be used too. 

Scientific American has noted that “some researchers fear that automated social media accounts will soon get a lot more convincing” as large language models like Chat GPT have made it easier for AI to be more accessible to more people. Imagine hundreds of false accounts - which look real - sending out messages of support or attacking a candidate or party, for example. 

The researchers at EDMO didn’t find many examples of AI being used when they looked at the elections in Europe in 2023; but the few that they did find were worrying. 

Just two days before Slovakia’s national elections in 2023, for example, an audio clip was posted to Facebook allegedly showing a conversation between the leader of a liberal political party and a reporter from a newspaper discussing how to rig the coming election. 

Both the party and the newspaper immediately said that the audio recording was faked - but that didn’t stop it from being shared thousands of times before it was removed from Facebook and some other platforms. Fact-checkers from AFP found that while there are currently no tools that can say with absolute certainty that audio has been created by AI, there were a number of indications that the recording was a hoax.

In the real world, one of the biggest misinformation threats comes from politicians themselves

Rasmus Nielsen of the Reuters Institute for Journalism at Oxford has noted that misinformation coming from high-profile politicians “is likely to have a far greater impact than that from most other sources” because “people pay more attention to what prominent politicians say, and supporters of those politicians are more inclined to believe it and act on it”. 

Narratives and phrases

Some issues that act like a magnet for misinformation, such as climate change or immigration, often see similar versions of the same false story being spread over and over again, spreading from country to country. 

With election misinformation, it’s different: many of the stories about irregularities in voting and elections are rarely repeated.

This is often because a lot of them may have some loose connection with something that really happened: someone may see something unusual or seemingly inexplicable at their local polling station and take a photograph, which is then shared or repackaged on social media, ending up as something very different. 

As a result, the false stories are very different from one country to another, the EDMO study found. There are some themes though. 

One of the most common narratives is about problems with voting in an election or referendum: stories about people being able to vote more than once, attempts to illegally add or subtract votes, or problems caused by electronic or postal voting. 

In Spain’s election in 2023, stories were shared that one political party had prevented trains from leaving Valencia so that passengers could be prevented from voting, for example. 

Another type of commonly seen false claims are specifically about the actual voting procedures: voting pencils that don’t work or mistakes in the polling booth, for example. 

Source: RollingNews.ie

One country found multiple examples where people were sharing photographs of their ballots which they said had already been filled in when they were given them. 

More insidiously, some false stories brought in other topics too. A number of countries in Europe have seen false stories about how immigrants or non-residents were allowed to vote when they shouldn’t have been, “exploiting xenophobic sentiments to suggest an attempt to undervalue citizens’ political choices”, as EDMO put it. 

A number of stories shared during the Estonian election in 2023 claimed that Ukrainian refugees would be allowed to vote in the parliamentary election, for example, while Poland heard claims that Ukrainians were ‘selling bones of Russian soldiers’. 

False stories aren’t just confined to election day, either. In many countries, misinformation about the electoral process started even before the vote took place

When Spain’s outgoing prime minister Pedro Sánchez called a snap general election in 2023, he had already faced significant allegations of electoral fraud in local elections which had taken place shortly before. Once the national election was called, the same allegations resurfaced and were reamplified

A number of countries which have postal voting, for example, have seen stories shared on social media about whether these votes would be counted correctly, days and sometimes weeks before the vote took place. 

Many countries have seen false claims about alleged interference from foreign countries and organisations in their elections. 

In Spain’s 2023 election, for example, there were widespread conspiracies about the validity of the election, including repeated claims that Ursula von der Leyen and nearby countries such as Morocco were actively campaigning for one of the candidates. 

EDMO noted that it ‘often’ happens that suspicions about the electoral process are accompanied by false claims about “‘suspicious’ deployments of armed forces or alleged interference from foreign countries and organisations”. 

In all of these cases, the claims - over 900 of them in total - were found and tested by factcheckers across the continent. The work highlights the importance of verifying claims about elections in order to protect democracy and the right to vote, which are pillars of democracy. 

Why is this happening?

While some countries around the world have held fraudulent and unfair elections for years, the explosion in false claims about elections in recent years can be traced back to the US presidential election in 2020 when Donald Trump falsely claimed to have won over Joe Biden. 

This is not just about bad facts being amplified; as a team of researchers at the University of Washington observed, the problem is more about people believing a Big Lie which sets up a framework for them to believe lots of smaller lies. 

“Though fabrications and outright lies certainly contribute to the challenge of misinformation, we are more often misled not by false evidence but by misinterpretations and mischaracterisations - dynamics of a collective sensemaking process gone awry,” they wrote. 

Knowing what to look out for then, is the best defence. 

In this case, Donald Trump made an overarching argument that elites and the media had rigged the election, and then people found lots of examples that would back this up. 

“The Big Lie took shape not merely as a series of lies communicated from elites to their audiences, but also as a series of misinterpretations and mischaracterisations from a motivated crowd who was willing (and in some cases eager) to misperceive the world through the “rigged election frame,” the researchers wrote. 

This has been echoed in many countries. A similar situation has occurred in Ireland in recent times, where immigration is blamed for a host of problems across the country and people find evidence to back up their claims. 

Experts have warned that with the large number of elections taking place in 2024 and 2025, election misinformation is likely to be a significant problem; safeguards have been eroded, social media platforms have rolled back on their efforts, and it’s become easier to spread impactful misinformation. 

Are there solutions?

Elections in Europe are widely acknowledged around the world as being free and fair, and there is no evidence of organised corruption of voting in any of its countries. Claims about irregularities or rigging are often wilfully or unknowingly untrue. 

On a theoretical level, the right to a secret vote to elect a government has been enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights for over 70 years. 

“Without this right there can be no free and fair elections,” the convention says; it was drafted in 1950 and came into force in 1953, signalling a hope for an end to decades of anti-democratic governments which had taken hold across many countries in Europe. 

A number of election monitoring groups observe and track votes around the world to ensure that they are democratic. One of the best-known of these is the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) which observes elections in 57 countries around the world, including Ireland.

  • The OSCE's full list of monitoring reports which date back to 1995 can be found here

The OSCE has consistently found that most member countries have fair elections. Unsurprisingly, countries which are more likely to have dodgy elections are less likely to sign up to have their elections monitored by independent observers. 

These are bulwarks to protect elections in theory; on a more practical level, Ireland’s new Electoral Commission [EC] is explicitly tasked with tackling misinformation around elections and has been promised the tools to deal with it. 


Art O’Leary, its chief executive, has said he is optimistic that the EC will be able to stop false information from being shared. 

As part of its role to protect the fairness and integrity of referendums and votes in Ireland, the EC says it will monitor, investigate, and then combat the dissemination of false information, and identify trends around it. 

It will also play a preventative role through media literacy to try to stop misinformation from taking off in the first place: the Commission plans to set up ‘educational and information programmes’ to get the public up to speed about misinformation and manipulative behaviour online. 

O’Leary has said the scale of the misinformation problem is “enormous” but that the Electoral Commission is ‘solutions-focused’. 

Meanwhile, some of the social media platforms responsible for the explosion in misinformation have been trying to get their house in order in recent years. 

TikTok is banning political ads, directing users to trusted information and moderating misinformation as part of its plan for referendums and elections in Ireland in 2024; Meta has fact-checkers around the world - including The Journal FactCheck - labelling false information on its platforms, while Facebook, Instagram and Threads will label images that have been created by AI. 

Fact-checkers and researchers will be monitoring upcoming elections to see how AI will impact the amount and the type of false information that’s shared. 

It may not be as bad as is feared, however. As researchers at the Brookings Institute in the US noted recently, while there are concerns about AI’s impact on elections, its potential harm shouldn’t be overstated right now - and it could also be positive. “While AI could undermine democratic elections, these new technologies could also introduce substantial pro-democracy benefits by, for example, helping social media companies better moderate content at scale or lowering the cost of smaller campaigns to… produce their message.”

In the end, the researchers wrote, the perception of AI will be largely determined by how the media writes about it and covers it, rather than its actual impact on the world. “That conversation should be driven by facts and research. Otherwise, belief in AI’s impact could be more detrimental than the actual effects.”


March 14, 2024



Christine Bohan

Deputy Editor with The Journal

The Journal
Knowledge Bank

FactCheck is a central unit of Ireland’s leading digital native news site, The Journal. For over a decade, we have strived to be an independent and objective source of information in an online world that is full of noise and diversions.

Our mission is to reduce the noise levels and bring clarity to public discourse on the topics impacting citizens’ daily lives.

Contact us at: factcheck@thejournal.ie

Visit thejournal.ie/factcheck/news/ to stay up to date on our latest explainers


We use cookies to make our site work and also for analytics purposes. You can enable or disable optional cookies as desired. See our Cookie Policy for more details.