Media Monitoring Africa warns of misinformation risks ahead of elections

As South Africa approaches its seventh democratic elections, the rise of misinformation and disinformation on social media has emerged as a significant threat to the democratic process. Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) has issued a warning, highlighting the dangers posed by the “explosion of information” that makes distinguishing between real and fake news increasingly challenging.

During a webinar hosted by the Government Communication and Information System (GCSI), Nomshado Lubisi-Nkosinkulu, Communications Manager at MMA, emphasized the gravity of the situation. “Democracy is under threat. South Africa is facing unprecedented challenges, and political analysts are describing the upcoming election period as one of the most critical and potentially contentious in our young democracy,” she stated.

MMA, an organization dedicated to promoting ethical journalism and supporting human rights and democracy, is at the forefront of addressing these issues. Lubisi-Nkosinkulu highlighted the dramatic increase in misinformation and disinformation on social media platforms, coupled with a lack of strong digital and media literacy skills among the public. This situation underscores the crucial role of traditional media in being credible and well-equipped to inform and educate the populace.

As the country moves towards the elections, the presence of misinformation, disinformation, and other digital harms is not only probable but certain. These threats can disrupt or prevent the proper conduct and outcome of elections, thereby undermining democracy. Disinformation, often containing a grain of truth, can provoke public anger, anxiety, fear, and uncertainty, ultimately eroding trust in key democratic institutions.

To combat this, Lubisi-Nkosinkulu called for a multi-stakeholder partnership with the Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC). This partnership includes a framework of cooperation between MMA, the IEC, social media platforms, and a disinformation working group involving key civil society bodies. “Using dedicated tools like Real411, we will help combat, mitigate, and investigate disinformation and other online harms during the election period,” she explained.

Real411 is a platform that allows the public to report digital harms, including disinformation. It ensures that online content is assessed and addressed in an independent, transparent, and accountable manner, adhering to laws and constitutional rights. The app is available on Google Play and the App Store.

Run in conjunction with the IEC, Real411 aims to:

  • Ensure key stakeholders play by the same rules.
  • Empower citizens to act against disinformation, thus mitigating its impact.
  • Provide a central place for the public to report issues, enabling the IEC to address complaints across digital platforms.

Additionally, the public now has access to the Political Party Advert Repository (PAdRE), which aims to ensure and increase access to information during elections in line with the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa. PAdRE supports free and fair elections by providing information on political party advertisements and their spending.

Fortune Mgwili-Sibanda, Director of Public Policy and Government Relations at TikTok Sub-Saharan Africa, also addressed the platform’s efforts to safeguard election integrity. TikTok’s Community Guidelines are designed to create a safe and welcoming environment. “These guidelines define a common code of conduct and help maintain a safe shared space,” he said.

On May 17, TikTok updated its rules and standards, including a warning strike for first-time guideline violations and a policy to temporarily make an account ineligible for recommendation if the creator repeatedly posts content that violates the guidelines. The platform also introduced an account check feature, allowing creators to audit their accounts and review their last 30 posts.

“We believe that feeling safe is essential to expressing yourself authentically, which is why we strive to uphold our Community Guidelines by removing accounts and content that violate them,” Mgwili-Sibanda concluded.

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