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A vigilant voter’s elections guide to keep our digital streets safe from misinformation

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Kavisha is a social justice activist and founding director of the Campaign On Digital Ethics (CODE). She is the former Head of Stakeholder Relations and Campaigns at Corruption Watch.

If you come across false information this election season, don’t simply continue to scroll. You can actively play a role in keeping our digital streets safer.

Election season is upon us. And you can be assured, dear voter, that regardless of where you are in South Africa, how you get your news, or how much time you spend on social media and digital platforms, you are likely to be a target of disinformation over the next few months.

We are less than 90 days away from a very significant general election, and our politicians need your vote. So, they will find ways to convince you with their big ideas that only their policies are capable of positively shifting the trajectory of South Africa, while parading their shiny and charismatic leaders as our nation’s saviours.

Now, while this dynamic is a natural element of political campaigning, an insidious trend has emerged: the deliberate use of disinformation to instil fear, manipulate opinions and divide the electorate.

Take, for example, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s claim that social grants would disappear if opposition parties came into power, or former president Jacob Zuma, now a leader of the MK Party, who claimed that load shedding ended during his term in office.

Or Arise South Africa leader Mpho Dagada, who, in a video on X that received over 400,000 views, alleged that the ANC is trying to steal the election due to the Electoral Commission of SA’s (IEC) legal requirement that parties obtain thousands of signatures to contest elections at a national level and in each province. 

So, why do they do this?

Put simply, Ramaphosa wants you to be afraid that social grants will end if the ANC is not in power – even though the DA, EFF, Rise Mzansi and Change Starts Now have all outlined efforts to maintain and, in some instances, expand the provision of social grants.

Zuma wants to deflect from the fact that despite some reprieves from load shedding during his term, State Capture (including the capture of Eskom) and the failure to maintain our power plants plunged us into the crisis we are currently facing and in which he had a direct role.

And Dagada? Well, if he and his party were serious about contesting elections and participating meaningfully in our democracy, he would have known the criteria required by the IEC to get his party on the ballot, instead of putting out a dangerously false claim – due to his own party’s lack of homework – that our election is being stolen.     

These tactics are not unique to South Africa; they mirror global trends where information campaigns exploit biases and fears to influence voter behaviour. 

As we approach election day, such strategies are likely to intensify.

Getting out of your echo chamber

Given the noise and information overload that occurs during the election season, it is important that you, dear voter, critically analyse the information that you receive. 

Don’t trap yourself in an echo chamber where you are only engaging with ideas and people who think like you, look like you or have a similar lifestyle to you.

Challenge yourself to understand the positions of different parties. Take time to read and understand the different manifestos. Participate and engage in upcoming debates, town halls or political gatherings.

Make an effort to understand the proposed rules, laws and policies that will come to shape our society for the next few decades. 

This is your democracy too and you need to understand all facets of it to recognise when and where it goes wrong.

As political content starts to flood online platforms and traditional media, reflect on your information processing habits. 

Ask yourself: are you succumbing to confirmation bias, meaning you favour information that aligns with your existing beliefs while dismissing contrary evidence? 

Are you jumping on the bandwagon, adopting opinions because they are popular rather than forming your own independent judgements? 

Are you stereotyping political parties, policies or individuals based on broad generalisations?

We are all naturally inclined towards certain biases, but adopting a critical and inquisitive mindset open to debate and discussion and eager for factual knowledge is paramount when navigating the information ecosystem during election cycles and beyond.

Be aware before you share

For individuals on social media or other online platforms where a mere retweet, repost or share can amplify and weave disinformation throughout our networks, it’s crucial to pause and reflect on the following questions before disseminating political content:

  • Is this real? Is there any evidence to support the claims made in the post? Look for direct evidence supporting the claims. This could be in the form of statistics from reputable organisations, quotes from verifiable sources, or reports from credible news outlets.
  • Who is the source of this content and are they credible? Determine who created or first shared the information. Is it an individual, an organisation or a news outlet? What is their reputation? Consider the source’s history. Have they been reliable and accurate in the past? Do they have expertise in the subject matter? Sources with a track record of accuracy and accountability are more reliable.
  • Is this information published on a site/page that is trustworthy and reliable? Is the information coming from a well-known and respected news outlet, an official organisation or an established expert in the field? Trusted sources often have rigorous editorial standards and fact-checking processes. Look at the quality of the website or page sharing the information. Reputable sites typically have a professional appearance, clear information about their mission and the people behind them, and contact information. Be wary of sites that are filled with sensationalist headlines, numerous ads or lack transparency about their sources.
  • Are there any biases and what is the intent? Consider the possible bias of the source and the intent behind the information. Is it meant to inform, persuade or incite? Recognising bias can help you understand the context and evaluate the information more critically.
  • Does the content stir up particularly strong emotions? Disinformation often aims to elicit strong emotional reactions to drive shares and engagement. If a piece of content makes you feel extremely angry, scared or euphoric, take a moment to step back and critically assess it before sharing.

Digital vigilance

In the digital world, where disinformation can spread like wildfire, the act of reporting false content is a civic duty in the same way that we should report a crime or act of wrongdoing if we witness it.

If you come across false information this election season, don’t simply continue to scroll. You can actively play a role in keeping our digital streets safer. 

Social media platforms and online forums typically offer mechanisms to flag content that is misleading or outright false. Using these tools not only aids in curtailing the reach of harmful disinformation but also signals to these platforms the need for stronger measures against the spread of falsehoods. 

This step is especially critical in the context of election-related content, where the stakes are high and the impact can be significant.

Additionally, report this content to Media Monitoring Africa, Africa Check or the Campaign On Digital Ethics – all of whom are independent civil society organisations actively working on countering disinformation during our elections.

Every share counts

The floodgates of political content have been flung open and, amid this, our ability to sift through the noise to find kernels of truth will define the quality of our democratic engagement.

Remember, a well-informed electorate is the bedrock of our democracy. 

By questioning the authenticity of the information that we consume, challenging our biases and actively seeking out credible sources, we do more than just protect ourselves from the webs of disinformation; we also uphold the integrity of our electoral process.

So, dear voter, as you scroll through your feeds this election season, let your guiding principle be a blend of critical thinking, curiosity and a hunger for facts. 

In doing so, you not only safeguard your decision-making process but also contribute to the collective wisdom of our society, ensuring that participatory democracy and free and fair elections, in their truest sense, are both preserved and strengthened. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • District Six says:

    Very good. The most sensible question to begin with is, especially on social media: “does this information sound credible?”

    Stop and look at what is being presented to you.
    Does the photo look current? Are the vehicles pictured what you would expect to see right now on the street? Are the number plates recognisable? Are the people wearing contemporary clothing? Are any brand names used foreign to SA?

    There are many ways to spot fake information if one takes the time before sharing. And the biggest give away is if the texts directs you to “send this to all your contacts” you can be sure it is propaganda.

  • peter selwaski says:

    This talk about disinformation is a good description of the Democrat party here in the United States.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

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