Maverick Citizen

WEEKLY TRENDS IN SOUTH AFRICA OP-ED

Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: Keeping the beacon of truth burning as 2021 polls approach

Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: Keeping the beacon of truth burning as 2021 polls approach
Incitement is a criminal offence in South Africa, legislated against in a few Acts including the Cybercrimes and Riotous Assemblies Acts. (Photo: Rawpixel)

We are still coming to terms with the profound impact digital technology has on our lives. For those of us lucky enough to have access, we need to make digital information work for, and not against, our democracy.

 

William Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) and Nomshado Lubisi is communications manager at MMA, a partner in the 411 platform to counter disinformation.

Week 31: Elections and disinformation 

During the last 30 weeks we have highlighted instances and trends around disinformation that have been enabled and spread using digital platforms. While there is little doubt of the huge potential digital technology has to improve our lives, those who seek to use it to undermine our democracy seem to have a lot more going for them. The algorithms work to benefit the sensational and emotional. What does the emerging digital reality mean for our elections? How will it impact voters? This week we look at the impact of social media on our elections process, disinformation and what is being done to counter it. 

During a discussion last week, Dr Jan-Hinrik Schmidt, a senior researcher in digital interactive media and political communication at Germany’s Leibniz Institute for Media Research, noted that as Germany headed to national elections on Sunday more than 85% of the candidates had their own Facebook pages that they used to promote themselves and their parties. 

Using social media has meant that, in addition to candidates being able to promote their issues, they have also been able to engage in conversations with their supporters and potential new voters. While we don’t have the same uptake in South Africa we are likely to follow a similar trend. 

Duning the same discussion, Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) Commissioner Dr Nomsa Masuku observed how using social media enabled the IEC to share results as they arrived at the results centre. Masuku noted that social media had empowered the IEC to respond in near real-time to baseless claims. 

It is worth noting that in an election period, which is what we are in, most institutions that have anything to do with the elections have additional or special regulations. For example, outside of an election period, complaints about a broadcaster’s actions are heard by the Broadcasting Complaints Committee of South Africa. During an election period, however, in addition to special regulations that set out airtime for party election broadcasts, complaints about election coverage are dealt with by the Complaints Compliance Commission, which is part of the regulator, Icasa. 

Our media, as a general rule, put special plans in place to ensure they cover elections in a fair and balanced manner. With so many parties and issues to consider it is often a case of applying solid principles to moving targets and ensuring that the basics of good journalism are adhered to. Ideally, each media entity would set up election desks and after engagement with their audiences agree on key interest areas to target for coverage to meet their audience’s needs. 

MMA has monitored the media’s coverage in the run-up to every one of our democratic elections, to assess whether our media covers parties fairly and equitably, but also to identify the trends and issues covered. We ask if our media covers key human rights issues, like gender-based violence, child abuse, climate change, poverty and inequality. We do so not just because the monitoring reveals how power is represented in the media, but because news media are a critical component of our democracy and can affect the elections being free, fair and credible. We are, once again monitoring a sample of the media to help assess how they contribute to free and fair elections. 

During an election period, most bodies that have an active role in the election process take special precautions to ensure that they contribute to the elections being free and fair. A glaring omission previously has been social media platforms. Despite playing an increasingly critical role in sharing information, creating communities online, helping shape narratives and being easily the single most significant method of disseminating disinformation, social media platforms have fallen outside the general rubric of ensuring free, fair and credible elections. 

Despite their power, their influence, their near unlimited resources, social media platforms globally have been slow to acknowledge their role and responsibilities in an election period. Noteworthy shifts and commitments to help combat disinformation by social media platforms have been relatively recent and were brought in, to a large degree, by public anger and pressure from governments. It took the storming of the US Capitol in January this year for the social media platforms to take strong and meaningful action against the key instigator – Donald Trump. 

As a small market at the bottom of a distant continent our elections matter to us a great deal, but significantly less to the global platforms. South Africa receives a fraction of the resources devoted to bigger markets like the US and the EU. Look at the projects and actions taken to help ensure free and fair elections in the bigger markets and compare those to elections on our continent. The response makes sense commercially – just not from a principled, democratic perspective. It also serves to highlight the critical importance of addressing the digital divide. 

While fundamentally unacceptable, the response of many African states to the threat of disinformation is to often drift to extremes to address the challenges posed by the impact of social media on election processes. We can and should be proud of the approach of our own electoral management body, the IEC. Rather than seeking, for example, through the government to control and limit access and performance of the platforms, it has sought to work with the platforms, to use social media, and to bring it into our broader constitutional framework. It is a pragmatic approach that acknowledges the power of social media platforms but also asserts the critical importance of our constitutional principles.  

A clear example of this approach has been the IEC’s decision to work with Real411. Rather than leaving key decisions around online content to the platforms, working with Real411 means content is assessed locally and within the IEC’s own legislative framework. In other words, the IEC is bringing global social media platforms into the same framework as all other key election players. It is simple and powerful, and a concrete example of how a small market can ensure the mega-multinationals can be held to the same standards as all other players. 

We face a litany of challenges to protect and deepen our democracy. Disinformation poses a clear and fundamental threat, not just to our democracy, but to our elections. Those who are using disinformation often have the upper hand, as in most instances it will be a case of needing to respond to their efforts and mitigate their impact. Combating disinformation requires a multi-stakeholder and multi-pronged approach, It cannot be left to the IEC on its own. Disinformation is an existential threat to every institution and each member of the public. Fighting it is up to all of us. We welcome efforts by the social media platforms to commit to working to mitigate the impact of disinformation. 

We can also take comfort and strength from the reality that if we see something dodgy we can report it and action will be taken in line with our Constitution. That we can do so is critical not just in seeking to ensure all have to adhere and be assessed according to the same principles, but also in giving the power to the public to help do so. 

We need people to stand up and act against those who seek to exploit fears, against those who display no compassion. You can act by reporting digital harms to Real411. It won’t stop disinformation, but it may reduce its spread and cause less harm. It is critical that we all play our part in combating and mitigating these digital offences. If you suspect that content could be disinformation, hate speech, harassment of journalists or incitement to violence, there is something you can do about it.  

To make it even more simple, download the Real411 mobile app. We are approaching that magical period where political parties need to show us that they care, so in addition to asking what they will do in your area, ask them to issue one public statement a month in the lead-up to the elections that highlights and condemns any attacks on journalists, and then to demonstrate what action they took to help combat that. If they are edgy or push some bullshit agenda don’t vote for them, because they don’t believe in democracy. DM

Remember, if you come across content on social media that could potentially be disinformation, report it to Real411.

Download the Real411 App on Google Play Store or Apple App Store.

Gallery

"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"

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