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From Hashtags to Votes: Social Media Patterns in Spain’s 2023 Parliamentary Elections

In July 2023, Spain witnessed a whirlwind of political discourse and online engagement during the snap general election. While freedom of speech is crucial for the democratic process, the campaign was marred by the presence of disinformation and hate speech. Notably, some senior political figures even played a role in amplifying these harmful narratives. Let's delve into the key insights from our recent research.

For this research, we developed two databases during the observation period, from 24 June to 23 July 2023. The first database catalogued the online political discourse of influential figures, by gathering 142,000 posts on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, or YouTube by 641 relevant political actors in Spanish politics. The second database is a collection of 741 posts containing the main disinformation claims previously debunked by the Spanish fact-checking organisation, and later analysed these to determine whether they also promoted hate speech.

The main findings were the following:

  • Influential politicians shared posts on hoaxes or other misleading information favourable to their political agendas during the electoral campaign, increasing the reach and boosting the credibility of those claims.
  • One out of four posts containing disinformation targeted the electoral process, promoting unsubstantiated claims of widespread election fraud.
  • Voting by mail was the target of the majority of the disinformation content regarding election integrity.
  • Seventy-eight per cent of the disinformation content identified also contained hate speech that reinforced racist narratives and targeted people of colour and migrants in Spain.
  • The volume of posts by the selected group of political figures increased throughout the campaign, and even more so during the televised electoral debates. X (formerly Twitter) was the preferred platform in our sample, while “national identity and regional differences”, “social rights”, and “equality” were the most common topics.
  • Disinformation impacted the monitored political online discussion in terms of the negative sentiment of the posts on specific topics, and the volume of posts in reaction to hoaxes.

While research helps shed light on how disinformation, hate speech, and political speech interact during electoral processes, such research is most beneficial when it leads to effective policies and solutions. Online platforms must improve to meet their obligations under the EU Digital Services Act, including by implementing their terms and conditions in a more consistent manner, and by investing in solutions that provide better information and empower users to be more resilient when facing disinformation. At the same time, governments must invest in electoral and media literacy, in order to prevent disinformation targeting electoral integrity from taking root and to ensure that those holding public positions are held accountable for promoting harmful disinformation.

In the pursuit of a healthy, transparent democracy, it is imperative that we address the challenges posed by disinformation and hate speech in the digital age. Access the report now to learn more. 

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From Hashtags to Votes Download

This work is supported by

Stiftung Mercator