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Navigating Election Risks: A Guide for Executives

Posted: 3rd January 2024
By: Candace Moix
Navigating Election Risks: A Guide for Executives

Elections bring out the best of us and the worst of us. It's a time of shifting opinions, heightened emotions, and political intrigue in any year, but especially so lately, as research indicates polarization is increasing globally. You may be well-versed at navigating these dynamics interpersonally, with friends and family, but are you prepared to respond to election season risks posed to your business? More importantly, what can you really do in response? What should you do?

As with any business decision, cost matters. Sure, you may want to fight mis/disinformation online, but is it worth it? Let’s start with some context. As you balance the tradeoffs of proactive versus reactive engagement with the information ecosystem consider the potential adversarial investment. 2019 estimates cite the annual cost of mis/disinformation to the global economy at $78 billion with stock losses of $39 billion. An EU report stated Russia nexus disinformation sources paid for 170,000 political ads on Facebook between June 2015 and May 2017. A study by Cheq and the University of Baltimore estimated that at least $400 million is spent on advancing highly misleading or false political news globally, and in 2020, at least $200 million was spent in the US alone. This level of investment or more could be used to target the 2024 election cycle and subsequently, organizations caught in the crosshairs.

Adversaries certainly think these efforts are worthwhile, given the significant investment costs, but are there any metrics on disinformation efficacy? In terms of audience ability to discern information authenticity, a 2023 national survey of nearly 25,000 participants reported only 8% were able to correctly identify political falsehoods; in terms of belief adoption, 41% of participants actively believed in at least one political falsehood presented. And in terms of spread, a 2019 MIT study suggests falsehoods are 70% more likely to be shared on social media and can reach its first audience six times faster. Mis/disinformation is demonstrably capable of reaching susceptible audiences and changing their perspectives. The World Economic Forum stated disinformation and erosion of social cohesion continue to be some of the biggest global risks in the Global Risks Report 2023. Further, experts predict disinformation will increasingly target voters of color in the upcoming election and there are mounting concerns about AI-generated disinformation influencing the election.

Although this suggests mis and disinformation are mounting problems with potential real-world impact, it's a stretch to say this activity will impact all organizations’ risk; significant impact to businesses will be reserved for specific industries and potentially, specific organizations. Consider the role of pharmaceutical companies' relevance to the US electorate in the years following the pandemic.

As of 2020, a Pew Research survey found that 71% of Americans had heard of the rumor that COVID-19 was intentionally planned, and up to 25% believed the statement was at least probably true. A 2021 KFF study found that 78% of Americans were unsure about or believed at least 1 in 8 false statements presented to them about COVID-19, the pandemic, or vaccines. As of 2023, health misinformation continues to take its toll: CNN reported 20% or survey respondents believed it was definitely true that Covid-19 vaccines had killed more people than the virus itself. Russian state-backed disinformation campaigns were found to have targeted Pfizer and other vaccines; China also targeted US vaccines with disinformation about efficacy. Moreover, research suggests vaccine hesitancy was directly correlated with exposure to related misinformation.

As demonstrated, mis and disinformation can directly influence customer opinion and product uptake. Further, targeted disinformation campaigns may indirectly affect many businesses, influencing the reputation of industries your organization operates within. Organizations with a clear nexus to political topics would benefit most from a proactive election readiness effort, whereas others may be able to effectively leverage reactive plans for quick response surge efforts in the event of an emergency. If your organization is new to assessing the threat of disinformation and monitoring related risk, we recommend considering the following approach:

1. Enumerate Risk and Allocate Resources

  • Assess your organization’s relationship with the upcoming election cycle and related risk. This will enable you to appropriately allocate election readiness resources. Consider the following:
    • What relationship does your organization, product, customer, partners, etc. have with politics? With either/both political parties? With topics related to the 2024 election?
  • We've included a sample spectrum below to aid in assessing your organization’s risk and deciding on a preparedness strategy. Topics related to the election should be continuously evaluated and updated, as the landscape changes over the course of the coming year. Examples included in this spectrum indicate historical trends that may impact the upcoming election; 2024 practitioner insights on trending topic tracking will be discussed in future blog posts.

Allocating Election Readiness Resources Based on Risk

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2. Scoping Election Efforts and Monitor Intel

  • Based on your organization’s relationship with the upcoming election, decide what preparedness plans should be in place to manage risk. This will enable your organization to quickly take action in the event of political entanglement. Consider the following:
    • What external events are most likely to impact your organization? At what point would you be willing to take action? What actions might you and your security teams take in response to different events? How effective would different actions be in managing risk?
  • We’ve included a sample process below to aid in drafting your organization’s response escalation plan, in the event election topics are likely to impact operations. Each organization carries its own election cycle risk, so this demonstration exemplifies a high level walk-through; election readiness efforts should replicate this escalation pathway with improved granularity specific to their organization.

Scoping Election Readiness and Response Efforts based on Intelligence

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3. Monitor Outcomes and Forecast

  • Based on your organization’s response to the information ecosystem, carefully monitor community responses and business impact. Doing so will enable you to update your response playbook with effective responses for future engagements. Consider the following:
    • Does your organization have clear pathways to respond, if a risk has the possibility to cause significant harm? Do key players know their roles and responsibilities? Are there mechanisms for tracking corporate responses and efficacy? Are there related feedback processes to integrate lessons learned and improve playbooks?
  • We’ve included a sample question below to aid in evaluating your organization’s ability to respond to election related risks.

Forecast Emerging Risk based on Organizational and Community Responses

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Preceding the 2024 Presidential election, business leaders should expect an increase in reputational risk resulting from information operations, disinformation campaigns, or political entanglement. Organizations operating with heightened risk, especially risk closely aligned with trending political topics, should prepare enhanced monitoring and response capabilities. Proactive risk monitoring should significantly precede elections, likely ramping up a year in advance. Monitoring trends and hot button issues may enable preemptive inoculation for inflammatory election season risks; whereas the efficacy of counter-messaging and fact checking is often debated, the promise of prebunking - or debunking a rumor prior to it’s distribution - is reason for early engagement with the election cycle. A proactive stance may also present emerging opportunities for organizations to capitalize on, aligning their image with a dynamic social and political climate.