Youth-inclusive strategic communication by Electoral Management Bodies (EMBs) can foster trust and increase the timely flow of accurate and focused information towards young people. As such, this programmatic option considers youth-inclusive strategic communication by EMBs as a way of contributing to a healthy information environment, in an era of information overload and disinformation.
Having the legal responsibility for managing some or all elements that are essential for conducting elections, EMBs initiate activities seeking to raise awareness of the electoral process among the entire electorate, including young people. Voter education constitutes an important activity aimed to educate the electorate on the process and rights of individual voters. Simultaneously, and particularly during key moments in the electoral cycle such as voter registration, election day and the announcement of the results, the EMBs can contribute to a healthy information environment through timely and accurate information sharing in the form of what we call ‘strategic communication’, which is defined by the sharing of key messages to a targeted audience with the ultimate goal of building trust in the integrity of the process and the EMB itself. Effective strategic communication requires planning well ahead of an election through the design of a communication strategy. Refinements throughout the process may be required since the context and situation may evolve, and potential challenges may arise that require communication from the EMB.
In a time of information overload and disinformation, EMBs have an important role to play to ensure that the important messages get through in a timely, understandable and accessible manner. A pro-active communication strategy can build trust and may limit the potential for an information vacuum, which allows for disinformation narratives to circulate. The strategy may focus on building understanding of the electoral process, highlighting election security measures or explaining the electoral dispute resolution process. The importance of strategic communication around electoral dispute resolution was highlighted numerous times throughout the SELECT consultations.
EMBs have a variety of tools at their disposal, such as social media, radio programmes and newspapers. To ensure that the information reaches the young population, they may consider youth specific messaging by (1) making use of those channels where youth is mostly present and (2) designing messages that most resonate with youth, potentially developed in partnership with young people.
Social media platforms are important tools for outreach to young people by EMBs when disseminating information about electoral processes [UNDP and the European Commission (2017). Youth participation in electoral processes: Handbook for Electoral Management Bodies]. Previously, EMBs often had a limited presence on social media [International IDEA (2014). Social Media: A Practical Guide for Electoral Management Bodies], which can limit outreach to young people, particularly at a time when many people in development settings access information on smartphones. EMBs may require capacity-building on the usage of new tools offered by technology.
The use of social media can also make the communication more interactive and participatory by involving youth organizations in the design phase of the communication strategies. Young social media experts may be involved as well as civil society more broadly.
As a young respondent to the SELECT youth survey notes, “Youth-friendly information and materials can be formulated with young people involved to put in the youth aspect and be shared through both traditional and inclusive technology mediums, such as Internet, SMS, etc., keeping in mind that the material must be accessible to youth with disabilities as well.” Young respondent, SELECT youth survey, July 2022.
In addition to social media, traditional media such as television, radio and newspapers continue to be an important source of information about elections and a means through which youth engagement can be facilitated. Depending on the context’s specific needs, a variety or combination of communication channels can be used to ensure inclusive and effective outreach. The programmatic option ‘Information Landscape Assessment’ may also shed light on where young people get their information. Text messages can also be used to reach young people with information relating to elections, and it is cost-effective [UNDP and the European Commission (2017). Youth participation in electoral processes: Handbook for Electoral Management Bodies; Shipler, Search for Common Ground (2006). Youth Radio for Peacebuilding—A guide; ACE—The Electoral Knowledge Network. Accessed 23 September 2022: https://aceproject.org/ace-en/topics/yt/yt40/yt410/traditional-media-television-and-radio].
Guiding questions to inform programmatic considerations [SELECT consultations 2022]:
EMBs have a critical role to play in sharing electoral-related information. By building a track record of consistent and trustworthy communication, an EMB can serve as a steady source of information in a time of information overload and distrust towards information sources. Young people may contribute during the design phase, while amplifying the information shared by the EMB by resharing and spreading these messages through their own networks.
EMB communication may also benefit from considering strategic partnerships with the media and CSOs.
Young people’s use of (social) media platforms is context-specific and evolving as well as their opportunities and challenges for using technology towards democratic governance [UNICEF (2020). Digital civic engagement by young people; UNDP (2022). Youth perspectives on tech for democracy]. Therefore, an understanding of the information and media landscape can be helpful. It may increase the EMBs’ capacity to reach young people where they are and through communication means that resonate with youth.
Information around elections and key phases in the process from EMBs must be youth-friendly in order to be accessible to the diversity of young people. To do this, youth-specific and youth-friendly information materials can be created, or specific communication efforts such as campaigns can be initiated.
Depending on the contextual analysis, several communication means can be used. Radio is particularly relevant in remote areas and in local communities with limited connectivity and low Internet penetration where people often have limited access to other sources of information. It is important to consider the digital divide. By creating messages specifically to be aired via radio, EMBs can reach youth populations in more remote areas.
A specific focus might also be given to marginalized youth such as young women and girls, young people with disabilities and displaced young individuals. As an example, strategic communication may comprise messages that aim to tackle gender stereotypes and support young women’s leadership [Corlazzoli and White (2013). Practical approaches to theories of change in conflict, security, and justice programmes—Part II: Using theories of change in monitoring and evaluation in United Nations and Folke Bernadotte Academy (2021). Youth, peace and security: A programming handbook.].
Sustainability can be ensured through continuous communication between EMBs and young people to help increase understanding between young people and governance institutions, which may also increase trust, and subsequently the uptake of advice and information from EMBs.
One-way communication is a challenge for the meaningful engagement of young people. Therefore, EMBs may consider principles for meaningful youth engagement [See Annex 3 on principles, standards and strategies for meaningful youth engagement and youth, peace and security programming] in their development of strategic communication.
Access to information is critical to promote youth participation in elections, but the information needs to reach young people, and in order to do that, communication has to be strategic and considered relevant by the target group: young people.
While pro-active and timely communication by the EMB serves as a trust-building measure, the youth’s low levels of trust in the EMB may pose challenges, and therefore, additional trust-building measures may be required.
While the EMB may have the authority to communicate around elections, they will never be the sole communicator. Beyond any citizen that may decide to communicate and share information, be it false or true, the media, CSOs as well as political parties and actors also share messages throughout the electoral cycle. It is therefore important to look at the information environment holistically and work with other actors to address the information overload and potential for disinformation.
The handbook provides strategies and entry points to assist EMBs in removing existing barriers for youth electoral participation at different levels and in different areas, including the national legal and political framework and youth’ lack of confidence in national institutions. The publication also explores how EMBs could capitalize on innovative solutions to make electoral processes more inclusive and peaceful and to prevent youth from being incited to electoral violence by political parties. Finally, the handbook links these objectives to the outcomes and indicators of SDGs, in particular Goal 16.
The Election Commission of Bangladesh supports inclusive political processes and the prevention of electoral-related violence, including by raising awareness of young people to vote and providing evidence-based data on violence. Partners such as UNDP supported the Election Commission to create an inclusive public outreach strategy.
This drew on the experiences and partnerships of the project ‘supporting a peaceful and tolerant society in Bangladesh’ implemented by UNDP and partners. This project is accelerating a digital peace movement with the aim of identifying drivers of violence and social cohesion through youth-led innovations. By 2021, the Digital Khichuri Challenge has reached 15.000+ youth with messages promoting peace, social cohesion, and digital literacy, with a particular focus on addressing disinformation and hate speech. Youth panels were established to support the sharing and validation of online findings as well as to improve outreach activities and formulation of alternative peaceful narratives. With UNDP’s support, 73.5% of 268 youth leaders from marginalized communities are now actively interacting with local communities and promoting the rights of ethnic and excluded minorities. The online and offline campaigns for promoting peace, tolerance and social cohesion reached more than 23 million people, particularly the urban youth through the Digital Peace Movement (DPM) and Diversity for Peace (D4P) campaign. Ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, transgender people and traditional leaders were also engaged.
“In the run-up to the 2014 elections, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) of South Africa launched the IXSA (‘I Vote South Africa’) campaign to encourage youth registration, participation and engagement. The campaign was rolled out on television, radio and the internet, and featured celebrities and other citizens discussing their commitment to voting. The Commission recruited a team of three social media content creators to further engage with youth on Facebook, Mxit and Twitter. The number of users who ‘liked’ the Commission’s Facebook page increased from 1,400 to 10,000 during the first 24 hours of the campaign. Similarly, the first 10 days brought about 16,000 new followers to the Commission’s Twitter account. By March 2015 the Commission had attracted 220,000 and 70,000 followers to its Facebook and Twitter accounts, respectively.”