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ROAD TO 2024 ELECTIONS OP-ED

Real411 is ready to process your complaints about election misinformation and disinformation

Real411 is ready to process your complaints about election misinformation and disinformation

As we approach the elections on 29 May, with the IEC as a constant and ongoing vector for the polls, we have seen misinformation and disinformation about the commission being spread, with peaks relating to specific events and stories.

There is no doubt that misinformation and disinformation pose a real threat to South Africa’s forthcoming general elections. There are a range of initiatives aimed at mitigating the threat, from the Real411 platform run with the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC), to fact-checking with Africa Check. In addition, a host of experts from the University of Pretoria, the CSIR, DFR Labs, Murmur, CABC and the LRC are all set to analyse and investigate network behaviour and dangerous narratives.

These elections are undoubtedly the most watched South African elections from a social media perspective. In this series, we will address current and emerging issues relating to online harms. This week we look at two questions: How much disinformation is there, and how do we know Real411 is independently run?

How much disinformation is there? 

The short answer is, we don’t know. One reason is that social media platforms are reluctant to share meaningful data. They may tell us how many posts are removed in line with their community guidelines, but it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get a sense of the extent of misinformation and disinformation. 

The platforms carefully curate echo chambers for each of us, so what we see may be very different to what the people we live with or work with see. A key mechanism is to encourage public reporting of potential misinformation and disinformation. 

Real411 is a one-stop complaints portal, regardless of platform. Real411 assesses content in terms of South African laws and constitutional principles, giving you an easy mechanism for reporting content. In addition to not having to worry about the difference in reporting mechanisms across platforms, you can watch how your complaints get dealt with as they go through the system. 

By running Real411 in line with SA law and keeping the complaints available as a public archive, we have tracked trends in misinformation and disinformation since 2019. This achieves two key outcomes — the first is that Real411 acts as an early warning system. Because of users’ personalised echo chambers, a person who reports helps expose a possible pattern that others might be seeing variants of. 

The second key outcome is that Real411 has revealed that bursts in misinformation and disinformation content are closely aligned with news, and/or mainstream media events. This tells us that when there is a big news issue, especially a controversial issue, or a spotlight on a public figure, there is likely to be a surge in disinformation around the topic or person. 

When Covid-19 arrived, for example, we saw a surge of content saying it wasn’t real, it was a made-up virus and could be killed with hot water and garlic. As the pandemic spread and evolved, so too did the misinformation and disinformation about it. 

As we approach the elections on 29 May, with the IEC as a constant and ongoing vector for the elections, we have seen misinformation and disinformation about the IEC being spread, with peaks relating to specific events and stories. 

So, as the registration date for candidates approached, we started seeing an increase in misleading content that suggested the process wasn’t fair and that the IEC had prejudged candidates or parties. 

Then as tensions escalated over the possible ineligibility of former president Jacob Zuma to stand for election, we saw targeted attacks against not just the IEC but officials, specifically the deputy chair of the IEC, Janet Love. 

In addition to seeking to mislead the public about the credibility of the IEC, the attacks against Love sought to undermine her dignity, integrity and credibility. A core focus of such content seeks to discredit the IEC by making it personal, highlighting how an individual or individual at the top is allegedly compromised and or corrupt, thus impugning all the work of the IEC.

How Real411 works

Real411 is an initiative of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), which was started in 1993 ahead of SA’s first democratic elections to monitor and analyse how the SABC was reporting on the elections. 

We are currently monitoring 95 local news media ahead of the 2024 elections — you can see how the media are reporting on the elections here. In 2019, together with the IEC, we launched a world-first: Real411 — a public platform to help the public act against misinformation and disinformation. Real411 is once again the official platform on which to report online harms for the 2024 elections. 

As a registered non-benefit trust, MMA receives donations and undertakes contract work to carry out our activities. Real411 is a core initiative for the elections and, as with all other areas, we raise funds to do the work. The current list of donors is listed at the bottom of the Real411 page. 

We do not accept funds from any entity that would seek to control or determine our work. No donor can influence any aspect of the Real411 system — except to share its logo with us. No donor can influence the complaints submitted to Real411 and no donor or entity, including MMA and the IEC, can influence the outcome of the complaints submitted. 

When designing the system in 2018, we wanted to ensure that it would operate independently. To that end, we designed a system that works as follows:

Each complaint that comes in is reviewed by three reviewers. Reviewers are members of the public, experts, professionals, academics, IT gurus and members of the legal profession. 

To ensure we adhere to common standards, this year, together with the Mandela Institute of Law at Wits University we offered a one-day masterclass for all our reviewers. In addition, each reviewer underwent small-group training on the back end of the Real411 system and is equipped with the skills to analyse content according to standardised criteria (which are publicly available on the Real411 site).

Reviewers are not paid by MMA but give their time voluntarily. There is a group of more than 30 reviewers who all review complaints as and when they choose to. There is no way we can determine which three reviewers will claim a complaint. After each complaint has been reviewed by three individual reviewers, it goes to the Real411 secretariat — this person is a qualified lawyer, and he/she then carries out a fresh analysis of the complaint after seeing what the three reviewers said. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: 2024 elections

If it is an elections complaint, it gets sent to the IEC’s internal complaints review process. The IEC can then determine whether it should take further action, alert its communications team or send the complaint for further investigation. On receiving the input from the IEC, the secretariat determines the outcome. The secretariat may also send the complaint to the platforms with a request for take-down or other action and they may also issue an infographic to encourage sharing of the outcome.

If a person is not happy with the outcome of a complaint, they can ask for it to be re-reviewed or they can appeal against the final determination. If they choose to appeal, the appeal will be reviewed by former Constitutional Court justice Zak Yacoob. 

With more than 3,000 complaints reviewed, while some errors have occurred (as is to be expected with a brand-new system), we have no reason to suspect that any bias favouring or disfavouring any party or donor has influenced the outcome of a complaint. 

Our overall objective, as MMA, and by implementing the Real411 system, is to contribute to ensuring our elections are free, fair and credible, and through our other initiatives and projects, our goal is a responsible, quality media sector that works in defence of human rights and contributes to a strengthened democracy and a just and fair society. DM

William Bird is the director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA). Thandi Smith heads the Policy & Quality Programme at MMA, a partner in the 411 platform to counter disinformation.

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Daily Maverick has closed comments on all elections articles for the next two weeks. While we do everything in our power to ensure deliberately false, misleading and hateful commentary does not get published on our site, it’s simply not possible for our small team to have sight of every comment. Given the political dynamics of the moment, we cannot risk malignant actors abusing our platform to manipulate and mislead others. We remain committed to providing you with a platform for dynamic conversation and exchange and trust that you understand our need for circumspection at this sensitive time for our country.

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