First published in Business Day 13 June 2018

Growth of online platforms in SA means national polls may not be immune to campaigns of disinformation

William Bird, MMA

The eyes of the world are, rightly, focused on ongoing debates in the US about the role Russia may have played in getting Donald Trump elected to office, and the possibility of similar meddling in the French elections and the UK Brexit vote through social media.

With our own elections just a year away it’s worth asking whether SA’s electoral system is immune from this level of political interference.

Isn’t the environment ripe for some serious undermining of the electoral system because of a set of election rules and regulations that are sorely in need of updating?

Sure, the Russians may not be the greatest threat to SA’s sovereignty (although if their attitude towards getting nuclear power station contracts is anything to go by, we already have a reason to be afraid). The threats to our own election are more likely to come from internal forces: people keen to spread misinformation, disinformation, fake news and scare stories in an attempt to influence the outcome of the 2019 election.

There are many people with power who might be keen to try, from political factions to party supporters and international interests. We saw similar efforts to undermine elections in Kenya, and we have no reason to suspect we would be any different.

Already, social media has become the playground of those wanting to promote racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. It has become the theatre of extreme opinion, with political representatives trading blows in a way we have never seen before. It is clear that people feel they can express views on social media that they would be unlikely to express on a person-to-person basis.

But it isn’t only hate speech that flows, but more commonly the ability to spread misinformation and run co-ordinated campaigns across social media, where bot accounts can repost and give the illusion of huge followings. A recent example has seen legal action being taken, by journalists Peter Bruce, Adriaan Basson and Ferial Haffajee, against those spreading rumours.

In one instance, a tweet targeting Haffajee showed her face and that of Johann Rupert’s superimposed on another couple to give the appearance they were intimate. It doesn’t matter that the attempts were crude, they served to divert attention — and, critically, to undermine credibility — with a view to casting doubt on the veracity of whatever stories they produced.

In the short term such tactics undermine the dignity and credibility of those they target and may do little to affect trust in the media overall, but in the long term they play a key role in undermining media credibility.

The disturbing reality is that, as things stand, we have no mechanism to protect our democracy and a key part of the democratic process from social media abuse during times of elections. This is because the current electoral code, which all political parties sign up to, relates only to “traditional” media – television, radio and newspapers. It is silent on how to govern what is said on social media.

Social media growth

One of the key constituencies in the 2019 election will be young people. Despite our digital divide, young people are increasingly online and get their news and information via mobile devices, and less from traditional media sources. Over the past few years, we have seen the growth in numbers and popularity of social media in SA.

Facebook claims it now has 11-million monthly South African users.

It would therefore be a grave mistake not to turn our focus to social media, to ensure our election regulations recognise the crucial need to govern social media messaging.

In addition to the threats of misinformation and disinformation campaigns (remember Bell Pottinger?), our political context and social challenges means tensions are high and there are real dangers that inflammatory language and misinformation campaigns could spiral into disastrous violence.

Our emerging democracy is too precious to allow it to be undermined by those seeking to destabilise our nation through random – or targeted – tweets and Facebook postings.

It is therefore critical that the key stakeholders — including the Electoral Commission of SA, the portfolio committees on communication and home affairs, the Independent Communications Authority of SA, as well as political party representatives, key media stakeholders and social media platforms — find pragmatic solutions to imminent threats and challenges.

We must give ourselves the best chance possible to run free, fair, credible and independent democratic elections. We need an amendment to the electoral code that ensures social media is governed in the same way as traditional media, and which must come into place the moment an election is declared.

We need to ensure the Electoral Commission of SA has the power to respond if a politician posts something on social media that contravenes the code. Citizens need to know who to report violations to, and what the consequences are.

There are other issues too: what sanctions should be applied to abusers of the social media platform? What if they refuse to pull down factually incorrect posts? What should the authorities do about posts that are false, offensive, discriminatory or inflammatory? What if they don’t do anything?

What do we do if we find a series of accounts spreading misinformation? We can safely assume the parties will distance themselves from these, but then how do we deal with it within the code?

In addition to these examples, we need to ensure that parties commit themselves and their candidates to expose any wrongdoing on social media that they know of, to adhere to the same rules as with other media, and to actively use their social media to discourage prohibited conduct of or by their supporters.

Outside the issue of prohibited conduct, we need to think about the money and influence of those who buy adverts online. While it may be a stretch to think our elections could be influenced by online advertising, we have seen accusations in the US and the UK around the 2016 US elections and the Brexit referendum, where funds were used to influence the outcomes.

As a result, there is now a move to ensure that social media platforms keep a public file on all election communications spend so people can see how much is paid, and for what. Known as the Honest Ads Act, it might be something we could draw on locally. There is already African support for something similar outlined in the African Commission’s guidelines on access to information and elections in Africa. The recent move to require political parties to declare their funding should be expanded to include funding for social media advertising, if we are to be consistent.

There are many issues and difficult questions. What is clear is that time is running out to deal with them and find solutions that work. It is critical that we ensure the solutions we develop and implement are in the public interest and enable free, fair and credible elections — for the sake of our democracy.

Bird is director, Ashoka & Linc Fellow, Media Monitoring Africa.

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