DEMOCRACY VS POLITICAL THEOCRACY OP-ED
Fake news — The fight for South Africa’s future in the face of mounting disinformation
As the news cycle (already rarely boring at the best of times) begins to feature more politically themed electioneering stories in the lead-up to South Africa’s next general election — notably set to take place in the 30th year of democracy — there’s a pressing threat posing great risk to the constitutional foundations of our nation and its democracy.
With politicians and the people both preparing to go to the polls in 2024, the continued (and increasing) spread of disinformation is of grave concern, not just for our political leaders, but for every citizen who calls South Africa home.
From news stories that’ve been doctored just right to masterfully blend truth and fiction in an attempt to inspire outrage and mistrust, to hate-mongering and harassment-inciting trolls, sock puppets and bots, digital disinformation campaigns have the very real power to undermine the legitimacy of upcoming elections and erode public trust in our nation’s democratic institutions.
Left unchecked, unchallenged and unaddressed, this will have serious consequences for the future of a country still strangled by the tendrils of a violent and oppressive past.
In the wake of the pandemic, it’s no doubt that the term “disinformation” has entered regular use, having been thrown about with what feels like rapidly increasing frequency, seemingly from almost every angle and side, in service to every possible end. And contrary to popular belief, disinformation isn’t just something you disagree with. Broadly defined, disinformation is intentionally false or misleading information that is spread with the purpose of deceiving or manipulating those who read or see it.
Because of its tendency to be crafted in a way that panders to our human (read: often irrational) emotions and our pre-existing prejudices, disinformation is employed to heavily influence public opinion; to sow seeds of mistrust and confusion in democratic institutions, media agencies and centres for research; to manipulate peoples’ perceptions and beliefs.
This is a large part of what makes disinformation campaigns so damaging and dangerous in the lead-up to (or in the wake of) a general election. For example, there are still people who believe in Donald Trump’s call to “STOP THE COUNT!” as he claimed Democrats were stealing the general election in 2020 – a belief that quickly transitioned from online into real-world insanity in the form of an attempted insurrection on 6 January that sought to prevent a joint session of Congress from counting the electoral college votes to formalise the result).
Capable of taking many different forms, including false news stories, misleading social media posts, deep fakes and stand-the-test-of-time propaganda, disinformation campaigns often attempt to exploit existing social and political divisions to exacerbate tensions and polarise the public.
As has been seen in several other countries, disinformation can also be used to actively thwart free and fair elections by suppressing voter turnout, creating confusion around election procedures, and discrediting political candidates or parties.
The depth of the disorder
According to The Global Disinformation Order: 2019 Global Inventory of Organised Social Media Manipulation, disinformation campaigns in the form of social media manipulation have been documented in 70 countries, an increase from a reported 48 counties just one year prior. The report also found that the most common forms of disinformation involved political candidates, parties or governments.
A 2021 report on Freedom on the Net advised that the use of disinformation and propaganda to undermine democracy has become a pervasive and dangerous threat in many countries – with South Africa being no exception.
A survey conducted by Ipsos on behalf of the Centre for International Governance Innovation found that well over four in five (86%) online global citizens from over 25 economies, including South Africa, believe they’ve been exposed to fake news, and among them, nine in 10 (86%) reported having initially believed that the news was real, at least once.
Steps to defend democracy
While the fight against disinformation is ongoing on a global scale, with legal and other interventions falling short or suffering delays in meaningfully managing the threat, there are steps that can and must be taken in South Africa when it comes to properly and proactively preparing for the general elections:
- Educate the public. The human element continues to be a massive driver of cybercrime, and it’s no less the case where disinformation is concerned. It’s important that educational initiatives are put in place to empower the public to know how to identify and verify reliable sources of information. This kind of education drive could involve broadcast and social media campaigns that increase public awareness, media literacy programmes and other initiatives to promote critical thinking and digital literacy.
- Empower the public to report. A study by MIT scholars found that fake news stories on Twitter spread faster, reaching significantly more people, than the truth. And it’s likely no different for other social media channels. Because disinformation is often designed to trigger an emotional response in those who engage with it, it lends itself to a higher degree of virality. That’s where platforms like Real411 have a role to play, giving the public power to report possible digital harms for assessment and review in an independent, open, transparent and accountable manner within the guidelines of our laws and constitutional rights. The platform gives special attention to election periods, making it a tool of vital importance as we look ahead to 2024.
- Strengthen media freedom and independence. While news avoidance is growing sharply in countries across the globe, it’s imperative that we take steps as a country to uphold our free and independent media, which play a central role in holding politicians and other powerful organisations and individuals to account. In the lead-up to the elections, the government must support media freedom by protecting the rights of journalists, promoting media diversity and providing funding for public service media.
- Regulate social media platforms. The issue of regulation of social media platforms is global and ongoing, and while it won’t be complete (or even significantly advanced) by 2024, it is a long-term objective that’s well worth pursuing. Social media platforms have become key role players in the rampant spread of disinformation, and many governments are trying to explore different ways of regulating them. While the Data Protection Act and a new law on cybercrimes have roles to play, many concerns remain. Interventions already put forward include requiring platforms to label or remove false information, increasing the transparency around political advertising and user verification, and legally holding the platforms themselves liable for the content they host.
- Get involved on a global scale. Disinformation is a global issue and addressing it in order to limit the threat it poses to our democracy will require international cooperation. The South African government needs to work together with governments across the globe to learn from, and share, their best practices and workable solutions while developing a set of standards to address disinformation and coordinate efforts to facilitate the investigation, and disruption, of disinformation campaigns.
The reality is, with regard to the 2024 elections, we’re already behind when it comes to educating the population and proactively addressing the threat posed by disinformation.
If we’re to defend our democracy from the damage of disinformation, the solutions we seek to put into place will need to be multifaceted and well-coordinated between government, civil society, the media and other stakeholders.
It’s a war that will not be easily won, but having already come so far in pursuit of constitutional democracy against seemingly insurmountable odds, it’s a war that’s well worth it. For the sake of the elections in 2024, and all those still to come. DM
Robyn Porteous is a South African writer and researcher.