Defend Truth


Social media giants silent on how they will deal with threats to election integrity 


Anton Harber is executive director of the Campaign for Free Expression.

How can it be, one has to ask, that the tech giants operate in this country, earn significant profits from advertisers here, hold all our data, but feel that they cannot be held accountable and can disregard our Constitution’s fundamental commitment to transparency?

(This article has been updated to reflect that Google’s letter giving some information was not marked confidential. We regret the error -Ed)

The big global digital companies — Google, Meta, TikTok and X/Twitter — are showing varying degrees of contempt for South African law and sovereignty, brushing aside attempts to ensure our elections are safe from online disruption.

The Campaign for Free Expression (CFE) wrote to these companies earlier this year saying that South Africans were naturally concerned about the likelihood of attempts to use social media and search platforms to pollute our election with disinformation.

Since most of our young people get their news from social media, and there is now a long record of online interference with elections around the world, this is a serious issue.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Africa’s super year of elections — The rise of information disorder in African elections

We asked them a set of questions designed to assess if our elections would be safe, such as: could we see their risk assessments and know how this translated into their policies and practices? What due diligence had they done in the South African context and whom had they consulted? What measures would they take when they found disinformation?

What South African languages were they covering? Would they be promoting any voter education or reliable sources for voter information? Would they be protecting journalists being attacked on their platforms and what measures would they take when they found it?

How would they assess success and report on it? Were they taking steps to ensure their algorithms would not recommend or promote dubious information?

Their different responses say a lot about each of them and how they view their social responsibilities.

When all four did not reply (apart from a Google acknowledgement of receipt), we issued formal access to information notices on them, exercising our rights in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act (Paia).

‘No jurisdiction’

Google and Meta (which together control YouTube, Facebook,  Instagram and WhatsApp) said that South Africa’s access to information laws do not apply to them because they are based and hold their data in other countries. X said that South African law did not have jurisdiction over them.

None of them supplied the documentation requested, though Google sent a separate informal note offering to engage further on the matter and did offer some information.

What Google and Meta did then do was embark on a public relations exercise. They both published reassuring public statements and held media briefings outlining their concerns about election disruption but, with a few exceptions, only broadly and vaguely outlining how they would prevent it.

Similarly, TikTok’s representatives said Paia did not apply to them, but they conceded that they would respond “in the interests of good governance, corporate transparency and social responsibility”.

They reiterated their global “Community Guidelines” with general assurances such as “we remain focussed on keeping people safe” and “we work to protect the integrity of elections by removing or reducing the reach of misinformation”.

They provided none of the documentation we had asked for in terms of Paia.

X did the least. Since owner Elon Musk dismantled their content monitoring team when he took control of the company last year, we can deduce that he has little concern or interest in defending election integrity or fighting disinformation. In fact, he personally has become a purveyor of conspiracy theories.

Accountability gulf

All of them are essentially saying, “Trust us, we are the tech giants”. But we can’t trust them — given the serious danger of online manipulation of our election and their poor record of preventing it.

They were displaying their sense of immunity and power, their view of themselves as above and beyond the power of the State, and their willingness to only share information on their own terms.

How can it be, one has to ask, that they operate in this country, earn significant profits from advertisers here, hold all our data, but feel that they cannot be held accountable and can disregard our Constitution’s fundamental commitment to transparency? They also, by the way, pay no taxes here.

CFE undertook a close analysis of the gap between what they told us and the information required for us to be reasonably confident that they are taking seriously our election integrity. This showed, in the words of analyst Prof Guy Berger, “a serious gap between supply and demand”.

“The company statements turn out to be largely generic, and they show serious deficit in substantive transparency that could reassure the public about the corporates’ preparations for the SA elections and their aftermath,” he concluded.

He highlighted three big gaps in what information they have made public:

  • Their risk assessment and mitigation scenarios;
  • Their plans for detecting and acting on online attacks on journalists; and
  • How they intend to monitor their performance.

CFE has now taken the matter up with the Information Regulator, hoping that this office has the power and the will to assert jurisdiction over the platforms. At the same time, the Competition Commission’s Media and Digital Platforms Inquiry is pushing them for information relating to their role in the country’s troubled media market.

The South African authorities in general are going to face some tough decisions on whether they are willing and able to call the big digital platforms to account and subject them to our law. It is no easy task, as these are some of the largest and most powerful corporate entities in the globe.

Meanwhile, it remains unknown if and how they will concretely deal with threats to the integrity of our election and its aftermath.

Unfortunately, we can count on information manipulators to exploit the vacuum. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Marc Lyon says:

    This is an important topic, especially in a country that experiences a political assassination every two weeks. Unfortunately, the brutal truth is that South Africa and its laws carry very little weight compared to the main backer of these platforms – the US. Until that country is held to account for its hypocritical enforcement of the so-called ‘rules-based order’ nothing will change.

    And overreacting with a South African version of the Great Firewall of China would do more damage to democracy and free speech than good. The best options right now are:
    (1) civic education in general and voter education specifically
    (2) enforcing SA laws against individuals & organisations who use digital platforms to transgress them

    Why are we still waiting for the prosecution of the main instigators of the 2021 riots? Where are the resources to track and expose those who spread hate speech and disinformation on social media?

    Maybe we should get our own house in order first, before we start screaming into the void.

    • Kanu Sukha says:

      Your observation about the US immunity and impunity to ‘International Law’ which they in their warmongering John Bolton hubris describe as being ‘untethered to law’ is pertinent. It has yet to account for its war crimes in Hiroshima, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan etc. (to name just a few) and places its ‘laws’ above that of the ‘international’ community. No wonder Assange is on their ‘wanted’ list. This places it (and its 51st state Israel) in the distinguished ‘company’ of the likes of Russia and China! Hence now its desperate efforts to ‘collapse’ and malign the UN and its agencies like UNRWA, which it originally helped to found !

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