Online Influence and Disinformation: South Africa Gears Up for Elections

Estimated read time 3 min read

Electoral Commission’s Ground Rules Alone May Not Suffice to Tackle Harmful Tactics in the Digital Arena

As South Africa approaches its upcoming polls scheduled for May 29th, the role of online campaigning is expected to be unprecedented in shaping public opinion. However, amidst the potential of online platforms to inform citizens about political parties’ policies and manifestos, there looms a significant risk of disinformation—intentional distortion of information. With approximately 26 million South Africans using social media—a number on the rise—tackling misinformation and disinformation becomes imperative.

The World Economic Forum has identified misinformation and disinformation as top global short-term risks, emphasizing their potential threat to democracy by eroding the checks and balances of open societies. Consequently, South Africa must guard against influence operations while preserving freedom of expression.

While the Electoral Commission’s ground rules aim to regulate online activities during elections, they may not be sufficient to insulate the country from harmful tactics. As one politician remarked at a recent conference on disinformation, the creation of echo chambers by influence merchants creates a false impression of being informed, contributing to the spread of unverified news.

Digitally contrived communities can perpetuate prejudice, hatred, and violence, as seen in the case of Operation Dudula—a movement that originated online and evolved into a political entity, advocating xenophobic rhetoric.

Disinformation, often described as information warfare, is perpetrated by various actors driven by political ideology, commercial gain, or recreational motives. Locally, product influencers pivot their audiences towards political narratives during election seasons, often for commercial purposes. Additionally, external nation states or their proxies may exploit racial, economic, and religious divisions to achieve domestic political or geopolitical objectives.

While South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission seeks to establish ground rules for social media use during elections, responding swiftly and proportionately to disinformation remains a challenge. Plausible deniability is a tool frequently used by disinformation merchants, making it difficult to hold perpetrators accountable.

South Africa’s experience with Bell Pottinger, a UK-based public relations firm that exploited racial fault lines for political gain, underscores the need for vigilance against external influence campaigns. In the current digital landscape, advancements in artificial intelligence (AI) enable the creation of sophisticated ‘deepfakes,’ further complicating efforts to combat disinformation.

As campaigning intensifies, safeguarding against information manipulation requires collaboration between stakeholders. Building resilience in traditional media, early detection of disinformation, and engaging directly with social media platforms are crucial strategies in countering harmful narratives.

The creation of Real411, a complaints platform to address online harms, underscores the importance of proactive measures in mitigating the impact of disinformation on democracy. With South Africa’s geopolitical prominence and expanding tech marketplace, the country is well-positioned to lead discussions with social media platforms on addressing these concerns effectively.

In the face of evolving challenges posed by disinformation, South Africa’s commitment to upholding democratic principles hinges on its ability to adapt and innovate in the digital sphere. As the country navigates the complex terrain of online influence and disinformation, collaborative efforts across sectors will be essential in safeguarding the integrity of its electoral process and democratic institutions.

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