South Africa

OP-ED

Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: Weekly Trends in South Africa

(Photo: Unsplash / David Werbrouck)

A crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic creates a perfect opportunity for those who wish to cause confusion, chaos, and public harm – and mis- and disinformation enables them to do just that. This week we look at elections and the actions of Real411.

Media Monitoring Africa has been tracking disinformation trends on digital platforms since the end of March. Using the Real411 platform, we have analysed disinformation trends which have largely focused on Covid-19. To date, 932 complaints have been submitted to the platform, 96% of which have been assessed by experts, and action taken.

We continue to receive complaints on diverse issues and topics – this past week we have had complaints about Covid-19 disinformation as well as xenophobic and racist content on social media. What is important to note with complaints such as the complaint highlighted below (complaint #994) as an example, is that the specific post might not meet the criteria for hate speech, but ongoing, consistent narratives pushing hateful agendas have a lot of impact.

With the chaos and uncertainty around the US election, it’s easy to feel smug about the fact that we have one of the most effective election processes. Sure, there are problems, but we don’t need to worry about which credible source to get our election results from – ours are all gathered in the open at a results centre, where, as they come in, political parties, election observers, civil society bodies, the media and the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) all get to see them at the same time. It helps that our electoral system is only a few decades old, unlike the US system, which has been tweaked over the last 200 years.

Crude comparisons aside, as tensions heightened around the US elections so too did the levels of disinformation. Even before the results came in there was a campaign encouraging Hispanics to believe that the elections were being stolen from Donald Trump. While it is perhaps too early to suggest what kind of disinformation we might see ahead of our own local government elections in 2021, we do know that there will be increased efforts to sow confusion. We are fortunate that while the dark forces are strong, they will have to contend with an increasingly well organised response from diverse stakeholders. These stakeholders include the IEC, one of the most effective and credible election bodies in the world. We also have a range of excellent civil society led bodies, including the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change, the Digital Forensics Research Lab, Africa Check, a stack of super clever academics at various universities, some superb journalists and media houses, and Real411.

We are frequently asked, what can Real411 actually do about the digital evils that are reported?

In the lead-up to the 2019 elections, we worked with the IEC. Not only did this help with buy-in and support from key political actors, it also meant that where content was found to meet the criteria set (at the time it was only disinformation) the final decision was up to the IEC commissioners. In an election period, the IEC commissioners have important powers. They can refer issues to the SAPS, or to the Electoral Court, they can hear and act on complaints, they can demand that content be removed, and they have significant powers over political parties.

In a worst-case scenario the IEC could, for example, in addition to fines and possible referral to the SAPS, deregister a party from the elections – thus effectively rendering it pointless in an election period. However, the IEC tends not to use these important powers directly, but prefers them as a big stick in the background. In most instances the IEC seeks to find constructive solutions, to be cool-headed at a time when political parties are like five-year-olds at a party who have eaten too much chocolate cake and drunk too many fizzy drinks.

The IEC’s goal is to ensure the elections go ahead in a democratic, fair, independent and credible manner, and where actions take place that undermine those goals, the IEC does in most instances act swiftly. Of course, there are challenges to such an approach, in that some aggrieved parties may feel that where a transgression has occurred the consequences aren’t proportional to the transgression. The approach is important when we consider the role of Real411 in an election period. It offers useful practical lessons, and in cases where content was found to meet the criteria set for Real411, the IEC was able to take action. Content that was requested to be taken down was in fact taken down by the platforms.

However, Real411 has no legal standing, and it cannot issue fines or punishments nor can it take legal action. But what it lacks in legal punch it makes up for in other ways.

  • The system is designed around a multi-stakeholder approach. The reason for this is simply that combating digital evils, such as disinformation, requires all key stakeholders to play their part. Government, the platforms, independent bodies, the media and civil society all have a critical role to play in combating digital evils, but in almost all cases, on their own, either they won’t be effective or they may lose sight of ensuring that rights to freedom of expression and democracy are deepened and protected. Real411 works with the support of the social media platforms, media bodies like the SA National Editors’ Forum and the Press Council, and the government. We are working on additional partnerships with other civil society bodies and the South African Human Rights Commission.
  • Real411 has a rights-based approach built into it. The three reviewers who review each complaint have different perspectives, and members of the secretariat are all qualified lawyers, which is important for due process and ensuring fairness. Real411 also has an appeals process, so if a member of the public is not satisfied with the outcome of a complaint it will be referred to an appeals judge. Former Deputy Chief Justice Zak Yacoob is acting as the appeals judge for any such matters.
  • The criteria that are used to assess each complaint are based on existing laws and principles.
  • Perhaps one of the most critical elements of Real411 is that complaints are dealt with speedily. Most are dealt with in under 24 hours, and an urgent complaint can go through the system in two to four hours.

The actions that Real411 takes have an impact. Real411 can issue infographics, which are summaries of the outcome. So, for example, if a complaint is about a Covid-19 phishing scam, Real411 can issue an infographic that can then be shared back to the same group of people who shared it to begin with, hopefully empowering people to think twice before clicking if they have seen the counter narrative. If it is more serious, Real411 can also issue a take-down request to the platforms. Because the platforms are generally supportive of the system, they also act swiftly to take content down.

Real411 can alert key partners so that they can share the counter narratives and respond if necessary. Thus, if there is a piece of disinformation about Covid-19, the outcome can be shared with the government and they in turn can then decide if they want to just share it to their networks, or if they want to take other action, including litigation.

Real411 doesn’t seek criminal action against those who are responsible for digital evils like disinformation, hate speech, incitement to violence and harassment of journalists online. Rather, Real411 seeks to expose, inform and empower other partners to act swiftly. In doing so, Real411 mitigates and ameliorates the impact of digital evils. We work with a network of Spotters, people who spot disinformation and report to Real411. We also work with children to equip them with digital literacy skills, including key skills on spotting disinformation. The approach is important as there is a tendency for states to use their most powerful and blunt weapon – regulation and criminal sanction.

There are many important and powerful arguments around whether to criminalise disinformation and we will unpack them in future pieces. For the time being there are two core challenges with seeking to criminalise the problem of digital evils:

  1. It tends to cause more problems. We have seen that where it has been attempted, like in Singapore, the laws are overly broad and deeply undermine media freedom.
  2. The other problem with such a general blunt approach is that justice systems the world over are slow, and by the time they act the harm has already been caused and the damage done and spread exponentially. This isn’t to say that those who do carry out such acts shouldn’t face severe consequences – they should – but our laws for the most part already deal with most of these crimes, such as hate speech and incitement and harassment.

One gap is around disinformation. It’s one reason why last week as Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) we appeared as an amicus in the high court in a case involving the EFF and Trevor Manuel – our role was to highlight to the court the dangers of disinformation online, and in so doing ensure that our courts continue to set important precedent.

As we approach our first 1,000 complaints for Real411, what is clear is that not only does the system work, but it offers an important bridge and means of linking civil society, social media platforms, the government and critical bodies like the IEC and SAHRC in our common fight against disinformation and other digital evils.

As the world recovers from the US elections, remember kindness and compassion, do not feed the trolls, and report dodgy content to Real411. DM

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  • I must admit that there have been some misinformation in the US election that had triggered illogical questions in my mind as well. My disbelief was fortunately remedied by the consistency of integrity and values portrayed in the Biden camp.
    Based on this topic published by DM and thinking about the SA situation there should be “bodies of trust” used to communicate and confirm integrity of information to the masses such as IEC, DM itself, Universities etc. in order to avoid the abuse of social media and promote these trustworthy institutions in a way that would be the aligned “voice of truth” for the country.