Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

Protecting against disinformation as the world casts its vote 

By Naomi Owusu, Co-Founder and CEO, Tickaroo

This year, more than half the world’s population will have the opportunity to vote. We’ve already seen the Taiwanese head to the ballot boxes, with other key elections coming up in the United States, the European Union, India, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa and the UK, amongst others. The media plays a vital role in the election process, representing a crucial channel for political dialogue and analysis. However, this integral role also makes media bodies a prime target for cyber disinformation and disruption.

With consumer trust in the media already on a downward trajectory, it’s more important than ever for news organisations to ensure that they can deliver timely and factually accurate information to protect the consumer experience and rebuild faith in reporting in this year of global elections. But with the growing threat of AI-enabled deepfakes and cyber attacks on media organisations on the rise, this is becoming an increasingly complex task.  

Whether to further a particular political cause or harm another, tap into journalists’ networks of sources or derail operations to extort financial gain, media networks represent an increasingly popular target for hackers and those looking to spread disinformation. As we saw in the last US elections in 2020, claims of ‘fake news’ can undermine the credibility of other political players and media institutions themselves. The spread of deep fakes and the growth of cyber-attacks on news organisations, therefore, represents a threat not just to the stability of the media but also to the trust placed in them by consumers and to the freedom of the press.

So how can news organisations respond to protect the delivery of trusted news, not fall foul of deep fake trickery and mitigate the effects of cyber-attacks?

Cyber threat prevention & mitigation

With most news organisations now operating online, they offer an extensive digital footprint and landscape of vulnerabilities for hackers to take advantage of. Earlier this year, a Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attack – in which a server is overwhelmed with internet traffic – disabled Newsquest websites and hindered its content management system. Other high-profile instances of cyber attack include the ransomware attack on The Guardian in 2022, which affected technology infrastructure and forced staff to work from home. Although online publishing was largely unaffected, the scale of the threat and the ability of hackers to disrupt operations is evident.

Publishers must, therefore, take action to prevent such incidents. A combined technological and human approach is the best bet for securing systems. Web application firewalls protect against malicious traffic, for instance. Still, it’s also worth investing in the ‘human’ firewall by training staff to be aware of the risks and follow guidelines to prevent data breaches or report dubious activity that might pose a risk. However, as well as prevention, mitigation is also a key concern, as demonstrated by our customer, German newspaper publisher RP Online

RP felt that cultural climate and technical advances were creating an imminent rather than theoretical threat likelihood. For them, continued, uninterrupted news publication in the case of a cyber-attack was a central priority, so we worked with them to implement our live blogging platform as the basis of a failsafe system. Since the software sits outside their standard infrastructure on separate servers, they could continue to post news to their readers, albeit in a different, more limited format, if their operations were compromised. In the case of an attack, traffic could be rerouted to the fallback system, where the most important stories of the day could be posted. This ensures readers can continue to depend on their reports – whatever else is happening. This dependability is a crucial element in protecting and maintaining consumer trust.

Discounting deep fakes

Just as technological advances are fast-tracking the means and modes of cyber attack, the explosion of generative AI tools is also helping the spread of misinformation via deepfakes – representing a further hurdle for media to overcome when ensuring the delivery of timely and factually correct news to protect the audience relationship. Just as they did in UK and US election years in 2019 and 2020, deep fakes are predicted to escalate in the run-up to the presidential and general elections. We’ve already seen several high-profile examples on both sides of the Atlantic, with the deepfake Biden robocall seeking to influence New Hampshire voters and a fake Keir Starmer video going viral on social media. 

The influence of these fabricated political images, videos, and audio files on voter decisions could be crucial, making it incumbent on media houses to post only verified information. But as the Austrian Press Agency (APA) highlights, doing this correctly does, in fact, offer an opportunity for news organisations to regain trust. The APA uses live blogs to collate information from various reputable sources to present a comprehensive and correct picture of events. They use live blogging alongside a fact-checking team to counter the growing trend towards increasingly complex false information. Combining the two adds credibility to media reporting, assuring audiences that information is thoroughly vetted before being shared. 

Safeguarding trust and credibility

As the world braces for pivotal elections, news organisations find themselves at the forefront of a battle to safeguard trust and credibility. The surge in cyber attacks targeting media outlets underscores the imperative for robust prevention and mitigation strategies, while the menace of deepfakes demands a concerted effort to discount fabricated content and prioritise verified information. Initiatives like live blogging and rigorous fact-checking are emerging as indispensable tools in this endeavour, offering a beacon of reliability amidst a storm of misinformation. As we navigate modern-day elections in the era of cybercrime and AI, the integrity of the media remains not just a safeguard for democracy but a cornerstone for the restoration of public trust and the preservation of press freedom.


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