Defend Truth

DISINFORMATION ONSLAUGHT OP-ED

Are South African newsrooms ready for Elections 2024?

Are South African newsrooms ready for Elections 2024?
Illustrative image: (Photos: EPA / Kim Ludbrook | Jaco Marais)

This year has been called the ‘year of elections’, as 2024 will see several elections taking place not only in Africa but around the world. Disinformation is a central concern in these elections globally. In its Global Risks Report, the World Economic Forum identified disinformation as the major risk facing global societies in the coming years. It highlighted the serious threat disinformation poses to electoral processes around the world, deepening polarisation and increasing the risk of conflict.

Although the date for the South African elections has not been announced yet, voter registration is already well under way, and political parties have started campaigning. (Ed note: The date for elections was announced on Tuesday as 29 May 2024).

Several new political parties are entering the fray this year in an attempt to capitalise on the declining support for the ruling African National Congress (ANC).

Several recent polls show that the ANC is widely expected to see its support drop below 50%.

This election is also significant, not only due to the likelihood of the country entering an era of coalition government at a national level for the first time, but it also marks the 30th anniversary of the first democratic elections in 1994.

In such a hotly contested election, the integrity of political information is of vital importance.

For voters to make informed decisions, and for the political process to be based on robust, inclusive and participatory political debate, the media will play a central role.

Not only should the media perform the important function of being a watchdog – by fact-checking politicians’ claims, investigating their track records and analysing their manifestos – but also by creating and curating a space where debates can take place.

In this regard, especially, the mainstream media will compete with the vast spectrum of social media platforms and channels where opinions will be bandied about, attacks will be launched and vitriol spewed.

The global political landscape is increasingly characterised by deep polarisation, and in South Africa, this polarisation continues to be shaped by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic position.

These continued deep divisions in South African society render our communication environment vulnerable to exploitation by disinformation campaigns and international influence operations.

A prime example of this was the infamous #whitemonopolycapital campaign conducted by the UK PR agency Bell Pottinger, in collaboration with the Gupta brothers, to deflect attention from corruption allegations against former president Jacob Zuma.

The campaign used an array of Twitter bots, websites and doctored images to spread a polarising narrative accusing white South Africans of monopolising resources to entrench apartheid’s legacy of poverty and deprivation among black counterparts.

Influence operations

Foreign influence operations may seek to use domestic political differences on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Israel-Palestine war to promote foreign soft power objectives in the South African media space.

These foreign influence operations are likely to include sophisticated information strategies by state and non-state actors in their attempts to influence the outcome of the election in favour of their geopolitical interests.

It has been speculated that “unofficial” influence operatives backed by Russia, Israel, China and the US could be active during these elections. Strategies may include promoting polarising narratives, seeding conspiracy theories or outright disinformation.

In this social context of polarisation and inequality, politicians are also likely to exploit tensions for their benefit.

It is already concerning to note the level of acceptability that xenophobia has attained in political campaigning.

From the extremism of Operation Dudula to the sometimes not-so-veiled references in the campaigns of bigger political parties, the supposed “problem” posed by foreign nationals is already a dangerous precedent of the type of inflammatory political rhetoric we are likely to see in the information sphere.

Against this backdrop, the media’s role in countering disinformation, rumours, conspiracy theories and hate speech will be hugely important.

Merely reporting, uncritically and in stenographic fashion, claims by opposing political players, can amplify and entrench polarisation to a dangerous extent.

Are the media ready?

But just how ready are the South African media to counter disinformation and ensure the integrity of the political communication space?

Amid a grave financial crisis, with extensive job losses for journalists and desperate news publishers seeking out new sources of funding, business models and partnership deals – including with big tech platforms – questions could be raised about the adequacy of South African news media’s resources to take on a multipronged disinformation onslaught from state and non-state actors.

However, three important, positive initiatives stand out.

First, the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) has once again partnered with big tech companies Google, Meta, TikTok, and civil society organisation Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), to fight disinformation in the upcoming elections.

At the launch of this collaborative framework, IEC chairperson Mosotho Moepya sounded the alarm: “The dissemination of disinformation has huge potential to undermine the fairness and credibility of elections.”

Second, several media outlets, supported by the Google News Initiative and led by Africa Check, have formed a “fact-checking coalition” to combat misinformation ahead of the South African elections.

The still-growing coalition includes fact-checking organisations Africa Check and AFP Fact Check, media outlets Daily Maverick, Mail&Guardian, Caxton Local Media, Tuks FM 107.2, civil society organisation SECTION27 and the South African Broadcasting Corporation.

The coalition “will work together to fact-check claims made by political parties, provide voters with reliable, non-partisan information on key issues, and equip the public with the skills they need to identify election misinformation”.

Third, the South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) and MMA have launched an initiative to protect the integrity of the elections, and particularly what social media companies should do to mitigate disinformation and other online election risks.

These risks have been ranked and prioritised in a broad framework to be discussed further with media companies and other role players.

Sanef and MMA have pledged “to take appropriate steps to put a spotlight on those actors who use social media services to endanger freedom of expression, access to information, safety of journalists and electoral integrity”.

Guidelines

On a broader continental level, the Association of African Election Authorities will soon publish principles and guidelines for the use of digital and social media in African elections.

There is a lot at stake for the credibility of South Africa’s media industry.

South Africa was ranked by World Press Freedom as one of the freest media environments in the world, and characterised by Reporters Without Borders as “sturdy, diverse and dynamic” despite growing verbal attacks by politicians and activists.

For the country to maintain this position, it is important – at the very least – for public media’s SABC News to provide independent, balanced and credible coverage of the 2024 elections, as it did in the 2019 and 2021 elections (according to MMA).

With its massive and unique reach across multiple distribution platforms in all 11 official languages, a strong, independent and well-resourced public media will be core to free and fair elections.

Most importantly, the SABC has a special responsibility to provide a bulwark against disinformation and avoid amplifying any false information and misleading narratives.

No other media group broadcasts and streams in all indigenous languages.

In fact, English and Afrikaans are still the predominantly used languages by privately owned news media outlets in South Africa, whether in print, online, radio or television news.

Promising signs

The elections will therefore be a strong litmus test for the 10-month-old SABC board and its new CEO (appointed in November last year).

The SABC board’s ability to protect SABC News from political interference will be in the spotlight. So far, there have been promising signs.

After a complaint by the SABC’s editor-in-chief, the board showed its resolve by taking quick action against a board member who had allegedly attempted to interfere with news coverage.

In September 2023, the errant board member was removed as head of the board’s news and editorial committee.

With so much at stake for the ANC in this election, it is almost certain that the SABC board and news management will need to show continued resilience to protect their independence.

The question is not whether there will be political interference, but how the board and SABC News management will handle interference and other pressures when they arise.

Some specific issues to look out for in the media’s coverage of the South African elections:

  • The major geopolitical conflicts raging around the world, in particular those between Russia and Ukraine and Israel and Palestine, will largely be viewed, and covered, through a domestic lens. This means that election candidates are likely to seek to gain political capital through proclaiming the correctness of their own position vis-a-vis these conflicts, and criticising the position of their opponents, including that of the government.

The election will also test the  ANC-led government’s historical allegiance towards Russia and its commitment to the BRICS group of states, and how it squares these diplomatic relations with its commitment to democratic ideals, which were courageously displayed in its case against Israel at the ICJ. Parties who have remained conspicuously silent about Israel’s war in Gaza might also lose standing among voters who are strongly invested in the Palestinian cause, particularly in the Western Cape.

Support for Israel may also be read by some voters as being swayed by Western influence rather than ideological principles. These geopolitical tensions are likely to be a feature of election debates, and foreign influence operations may seek to use these debates to promote soft power objectives of the various international players within the South African media space.

  • Another concern in global electoral politics this year is the rapid rise of artificial intelligence, whether in the form of large language models such as ChatGPT which may be used to support astroturfing (artificially inflated online support for particular ideological positions), bot accounts on social media, or “deep fake” images which may be used to impersonate politicians. It was important therefore that executives of the major platforms met last week in Munich and formed a voluntary pact to work on measures that will lessen the potential for deepfakes to disrupt democratic elections.

While AI may also disrupt the South African elections, other online threats such as the targeting of journalists (which includes tactics like doxxing or online gender-based violence) and smear campaigns against politicians are more likely to pose a risk to the integrity of elections.

The IEC, the platforms and the news media have a collective responsibility to address this and promote a healthy information ecosystem that is election-ready.

In conclusion: the media space, both the mainstream news media and online social media, is likely to be a contested, fractious and polarised arena as we enter the election period.

Given that these contestations will to a large degree play out in the broader online media space, there is a strong need for big tech platforms to take a vigilant and accountable role.

The integrity of the elections, the soundness of political debate and the maturity of our democracy itself will largely depend on the quality, robustness and ethical commitment of our media. DM

Herman Wasserman is Professor of Journalism and Chair of the Department of Journalism at Stellenbosch University. Michael Markovitz is head of the GIBS Media Leadership Think Tank at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS), University of Pretoria.

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