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ELECTIONS AND SOCIAL MEDIA OP-ED

Expect a rise in xenophobia, cybermisogyny and disinformation in the election run-up

Expect a rise in xenophobia, cybermisogyny and disinformation in the election run-up
Social media platforms. (Photo: thedrum.com / Wikipedia)

Social media companies — such as WhatsApp owner Meta — need to come to the party in safeguarding the information ecosystem to ensure the integrity of the 2024 elections.

It’s not rocket science to foresee that the South African elections will include WhatsApp being used to scapegoat migrants. There will be content on fabricated incidents along with actual incitements to violence.

Not only is the likelihood high, so too is the impact. So what can be done to counter this scenario? Advice comes from the SA National Editors’ Forum (Sanef), working in partnership with the NGO Media Monitoring Africa (MMA).  

Their call is that Meta, owner of WhatsApp, should send out a reminder to users ahead of the polls about the platform’s terms of service. And also that they should empower group admins about the role they can play to promote content safety in their spaces.

How would this work? Sanef proposes that WhatsApp send messages to admins about:

  • Their moderation obligations in regard to dangerous content on their groups; and
  • Tips to share with users about where they can find reliable information about the elections.

Certainly, there’s nothing to stop WhatsApp from promoting the Independent Electoral Commission’s channel to group admins, boosting links to the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa, and highlighting verified news media reports.

These won’t stop the problem, but it could make a difference to actual lives at risk from xenophobia.

Online threats

Sanef is also calling on the platforms to deal with online threats against journalists. South African women reporters already confront horrific online abuse — and this spectre will likely intensify as political temperatures rise.

For this reason, the editors urge the social media owners to set up hotlines and partnerships with journalists’ organisations. They demand that the companies should monitor attacks on endangered journalists and respond accordingly — like warning and deplatforming the assailants.  

Read more in Daily Maverick: Cybermisogyny signals sexism in the media and newsrooms

Very concretely for each company, says Sanef, “a confidential list of names of journalists likely to face attack is compiled, with input from MMA and Sanef; these accounts are then proactively monitored by dedicated staff on the platform, and actions taken accordingly to protect the journalists and prevent impunity for their attackers”.

It adds that “an overview of this action, with granular data on the types of attacks (as per platform categorisation) and the corresponding actions taken, is included in at least one transparency report before election day”.

Safety for journalists is a key condition for the news media to report without fear and to be able to supply voters with the facts.

Will the platforms come to the party?

Private sector

Private sector entities are subject to the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which call for due diligence to be done, risk-mitigation steps to be put in place, and the outcomes to then be communicated to the public.

The African Association of Electoral Authorities reinforces this point, in its new guidelines to be launched in Johannesburg at the end of February.

These risk assessment standards are observed, in different degrees, voluntarily in North America and compulsorily in the European Union (which has a legal requirement under the Digital Services Act).

Read more in Daily Maverick: Social media’s here to stay – and the fight to get our attention is only going to get more fierce

But the companies have not yet taken the South African public into their confidence and explained what can be expected of them in terms of protecting the elections infosystem.  

Protecting elections infosystem

Though a number of the companies make money in the country, including from political adverts, it’s also not clear what investment they will be making in keeping their services safe. 

Sanef and the MMA have invited the companies to talk. They are also cooperating with research partners to help monitor social media — as well as any commitments that the companies may make.  

The two groups are also asking for an audience with the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Communications and Digital Technologies.  

Sanef, along with MMA, articulates that it wishes to see:

  • South Africa’s hard-won freedom of expression and access to information being enabled on the platforms; and
  • Prevention of online voices of journalists and the public on these services being silenced, not least through cyber-misogyny.

Sanef says it supports access to information, as distinct from access to lies and falsehoods: “Sanef stands firmly against those who would use the election to scapegoat communities or to incite public violence.” DM

Guy Berger is Emeritus Professor, Rhodes University. He worked at Unesco promoting free expression and safety of journalists between 2011-2022. His website is CommsPolicy.Africa

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Martin Smith says:

    “Safety for journalists is a key condition for the news media to report without fear and to be able to supply voters with the facts.” Unless said journalist is a certain Australian who has spent the last 5 years in jail without trial…

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