MMA (Media Monitoring Africa) and the IEC launched a world first for the South African 2019 elections period – the digital disinformation complaints process on Monday 1 April.
Disinformation, misinformation and ‘fake news’ during election periods is a scourge that has affected the fairness and credibility in a number of countries around the world. For instance, in June 2018, the President of the Superior Electoral Court in Brazil declared that the interference caused by ‘fake news’ online with the electoral process could lead to the elections being annulled. It is imperative in order for elections to be free, fair and credible that the electorate has access to accurate, credible and reliable information. This requires proactive, rights-based solutions to address the spread of disinformation during the election period, particularly via online platforms. The digital disinformation complaints process will address the spread of disinformation during the South African 2019 election period.
What is digital disinformation, and why it matters
Disinformation is false, inaccurate or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm.
Harm in this regard includes, but is not limited to, disrupting or preventing an election, creating hostility or fear in order to influence the conduct or outcome of an election, or unduly influencing the outcome of conduct of an election.
Complaints will be considered by a panel of relevant experts including those with expertise in media law and social and digital media. They will make recommendations for possible further action for the consideration of the Commission.
Such action could include:
- Referring the matter for criminal or civil legal action
- Requesting social media platforms to remove the offensive material
- Issuing media statements to alert the public and correct the disinformation
The site will contain a database of all complaints received and their progress.
In addition to the online reporting platform, the initiative will also include a communication and education strategy to help educate voters about the dangers of disinformation and how to spot “fake news”.
Launching the platform today Vice Chairperson of the Electoral Commission, Ms Janet Love said: “Digital media has the potential to be an asset in the promotion of democracy, transparency and informed decision-making that should underpin elections as it provides platforms for rapid and wide sharing of information. But it also comes with significant risks and we have seen disinformation posing a very real threat to free and fair elections elsewhere in the world.
“This platform is South Africa’s innovative step to help channel any complaints to people with the relevant capabilities so that the Electoral Commission can take the necessary action quickly.”
MMA director William Bird said one of the core challenges surrounding disinformation is that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. “Without the necessary skills and techniques to distinguish real information from disinformation, the likelihood of members of the public being misled is increasing. While some efforts to build critical digital literacy skills have been made, it is essential, in the lead up to elections, that concerted efforts to develop digital literacy skills are rolled out. Not only will such skills have lasting impact but the more people who are equipped to combat disinformation the harder it will be to spread.”
To help distinguish between official and fake adverts, political parties contesting the 8 May elections have been asked to upload all official advertising material used by the party to an online political advert repository.
This will allow anyone to check whether a poster or a digital banner is legitimate or has been digitally altered.
Commissioner Love said while false information was already covered by the current Code of Conduct, a supplementary Code of Conduct on Digital Disinformation had been drafted as part of the project.
“The additional draft Code helps clarify issues around the new realities and risks associated with digital platforms and social media. The draft Code will be voluntary for the 2019 elections but it is our intention to formalize this for future elections depending on the success of this platform and what we learn.”
The digital platform is intended for complaints related only to social media and is not intended to replace existing channels and processes for investigating alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct.
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