We are still embracing the profound impact of digital technology on our lives. For those of us fortunate enough to have access to it, we need to make digital information work for, not against, our democracy.
William Bird is Director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) and Nameshado Lubisi is responsible for communication at MMA, partner of the 411 platform to counter disinformation.
Week 31: Elections and disinformation
Over the past 30 weeks, we have highlighted cases and trends around disinformation that have been activated and disseminated using digital platforms. While there is no doubt about the enormous potential of digital technology to improve our lives, those who seek to use it to undermine our democracy seem to have much more benefit for them. Algorithms work for the benefit of the sensational and the emotional. What does the emerging digital reality mean for our elections? What impact will this have on voters? This week, we take a look at the impact of social media on our electoral process, disinformation and what is being done to counter it.
In a discussion last week, Dr Jan-Hinrik Schmidt, senior researcher in digital interactive media and political communication at the German Leibniz Institute for Media Research, noted that as Germany was heading Towards the national elections on Sunday, more than 85% of the candidates had their own Facebook pages which they used to promote themselves and their parties.
The use of social media meant that in addition to being able to promote their issues, candidates were also able to engage in conversations with their supporters and potential new voters. While we don’t have the same adoption in South Africa, we will likely follow a similar trend.
In the same discussion, South African Election Commission (IEC) Commissioner Dr Namesa Masuku observed how the use of social media enabled the IEC to share results as they arrived at the results center. Masuku noted that social media has allowed the IEC to respond in near real time to baseless complaints.
It is interesting to note that during an election period, which we are faced with, most of the institutions that have something to do with elections have additional or special regulations. For example, outside of an election period, complaints about a broadcaster’s actions are heard by South Africa’s Broadcasting Complaints Committee. During an election period, however, in addition to special regulations that set airtime for party election broadcasts, complaints about election coverage are handled by the Complaints Compliance Commission, which is part of the regulator, Icasa.
Our media, as a rule, have special plans in place to ensure that they cover the elections in a fair and balanced manner. With so many parties and issues to consider, it’s often a matter of applying solid principles to moving targets and making sure the basics of good journalism are met. Ideally, each media entity would set up electoral offices and, after engaging with their audience, agree on key areas of interest to target for coverage in order to meet the needs of their audience.
MMA has been monitoring media coverage in the run-up to each of our democratic elections, to assess whether our media is covering parties fairly and equitably, but also to identify trends and issues covered. We ask if our media covers key human rights issues, such as gender-based violence, child abuse, climate change, poverty and inequality. We do this not only because surveillance reveals how power is represented in the media, but because the news media are an essential part of our democracy and can affect whether elections are free, fair and credible. We are once again monitoring a sample of media to help assess their contribution to free and fair elections.
During an election period, most bodies that play an active role in the electoral process take special care to ensure that they contribute to the free and fair elections. A glaring omission previously was social media platforms. Although they play an increasingly essential role in sharing information, building online communities, assisting in storytelling, and are easily the most important method of disseminating disinformation, platforms media have fallen outside the general rubric of ensuring free, fair and credible elections.
Despite their power, influence, and almost limitless resources, social media platforms around the world have been slow to recognize their role and responsibilities during an election period. Notable changes and commitments to help tackle disinformation through social media platforms are relatively recent and have been brought about, to a large extent, by public anger and pressure from governments. It took the storming of the United States Capitol in January this year for social media platforms to take strong and meaningful action against the key instigator – Donald Trump.
As a small market deep in a distant continent, our elections matter a lot to us, but a lot less to global platforms. South Africa receives a fraction of the resources spent on larger markets like the US and the EU. Take a look at the plans and actions taken to help ensure free and fair elections in the biggest markets and compare them to the elections on our continent. The answer makes sense commercially – but not from a democratic and principled standpoint. It also serves to underline the crucial importance of tackling the digital divide.
While fundamentally unacceptable, the response of many African states to the threat of disinformation is often to drift to extremes to address the challenges posed by the impact of social media on electoral processes. We can and should be proud of the approach of our own electoral management body, the IEC. Rather than seeking, for example, through the government to control and limit the access and performance of platforms, it sought to work with platforms, use social media and integrate it into our constitutional framework. wider. This is a pragmatic approach that recognizes the power of social media platforms, but also affirms the critical importance of our constitutional principles.
A clear example of this approach was the decision of the IEC to work with Real411. Rather than leaving the key decisions about online content to the platforms, working with Real411 means that the content is assessed locally and within the IEC legislative framework. In other words, the IEC places global social media platforms in the same framework as all other key electoral actors. It’s simple and powerful, and a real example of how a small market can ensure that mega-multinationals can be held to the same standards as everyone else.
We face a litany of challenges to protect and deepen our democracy. Disinformation poses a clear and fundamental threat, not only to our democracy, but to our elections. Those who use misinformation often have the upper hand, as in most cases it will be about responding to their efforts and mitigating their impact. The fight against disinformation requires a multistakeholder and multidimensional approach. It cannot be left to the CEI alone. Disinformation is an existential threat to every institution and every member of the public. Fighting it is everyone’s business. We applaud the efforts of social media platforms to commit to working to mitigate the impact of disinformation.
We can also take comfort and strength from the fact that if we see something fishy we can report it and action will be taken in accordance with our Constitution. That we can do this is essential not only to ensure that everyone adheres to and is evaluated on the same principles, but also to empower the public to help do it.
We need people to stand up and take action against those who seek to exploit fears, against those who show no compassion. You can take action by reporting digital damage to Real411. It won’t stop the misinformation, but it can reduce its spread and cause less damage. It is essential that we all play our part in combating and mitigating these digital crimes. If you think the content could be misinformation, hate speech, harassment of journalists, or incitement to violence, there is something you can do.
To make it even simpler, download the Real411 mobile app. We are approaching that magical time when political parties need to show us that they care, so in addition to asking what they will be doing in your area, ask them to issue one public statement per month before the election that puts spotlight and condemn any attack on journalists, and then demonstrate the steps they have taken to help combat this. If they’re nervous or pushing a bullshit agenda, don’t vote for them because they don’t believe in democracy. DM
Remember, if you come across any content on social media that could potentially be misinformation, report it to Real411.
Download the Real411 app from Google play store Where Apple app Shop.