Digital platforms must do better to safeguard electoral process

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 30 Jan 2024
Advocate Pansy Tlakula, chairperson of the Information Regulator.
Advocate Pansy Tlakula, chairperson of the Information Regulator.

The run up to the 2024 National and Provincial Elections requires social media and digital platforms to have better mechanisms to deal with misinformation and disinformation before it reaches their platforms and in the eyes of the public.

So says advocate Pansy Tlakula, chairperson of South Africa’s custodian of information rights the Information Regulator, speaking during a webinar session on the occasion of International Data Privacy Day.

The Information Regulator has a dual mandate that is the protection of personal information and the promotion of access to information, meaning the regulator must ensure the right of access to information is balanced against the right to privacy, explained Tlakula.

With some countries, including South Africa, going to the polls this year, issues around trust have become even more pronounced, especially as big tech companies race to embed generative AI capabilities into their platforms, tools and apps that consumers use every day.

The concern around these events is that they open up opportunities for bad actors to use generative AIto create fake images and videos, which can be used to spread political propaganda.

Too little too late

Noting the timeliness of the webinar, Tlakula said it comes on the heels of fake sexually explicit images of musician Taylor Swift surfaced on social media network X, previously Twitter.

Pop culture sensation Swift became the latest victim when AI-altered deepfake images of her were spread across social media, leading X to disable searches of her name.

One of the singer’s images reportedly shared on X was viewed 47 million times before the account was suspended. X has since reinstated the ability to search for Swift on its platform, saying it will continue to be vigilant.

The White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre described the circulation of false images of Swift alarming. “While social media companies make their own independent decisions about content management, we believe they have an important role to play in enforcing their own rules, to prevent the spread of misinformation and non-consensual intimate imagery of real people.”

Tlakula commented: “We know that X has blocked searches of her name from being accessible to the public, but that’s too little too late. This is what we are dealing with here today. Digital platforms can deal with misinformation and disinformation but it’s normally after the fact.

“I’m hoping that…in the lead up to the elections, we will find ways of ensuring that digital platforms deal with misinformation and disinformation, including fake news before they hit the platforms.”

Commemorated annually on 28 January, Data Privacy Day is an internationally recognised day that aims to raise awareness and promote privacy and data protection best practices. It further seeks to empower individuals in asserting their right to privacy and, in turn, encourage public and private bodies to respect privacy, safeguard data and enable trust.

The regulator yesterday, in partnership with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and Media Monitoring Africa, hosted a Data Privacy Day webinar under the theme “Mis-and disinformation and data protection during the election period”.

The webinar also served as an information sharing platform to engage on the mechanisms introduced by the IEC, social media companies, media houses, civil society organisations and the regulator to preserve the integrity of the electoral process and protection of personal information.

Tlakula expressed that with the forthcoming general elections, the regulator has two primary concerns, namely the handling of personal information of voters by political parties and other role players in the electoral process, and protection of personal information.

“Once campaigning heightens, we’ll begin to be bombarded with messages on our cellphones and e-mails from political parties and independent candidates that will try to convince us to vote for them. This is something that falls within the purview of POPIA [Protection of Personal Information Act].

“We are concerned about the phenomenon of misinformation and disinformation because these impede the free flow of credible reliable and accurate information, which is necessary for the electorate to make their choices during the elections.

“In the case of the processing of personal information of voters by political parties for campaigning purposes, there is a guidance note in 2019 in terms of POPIA.

“That guidance note was issued in 2019 and the Information Regulator intends to amend it in the run up to the 2024 elections, and bring it up to date with the latest developments in technology.”

Protecting the electoral process

During his presentation, IEC chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo explained that while social media provides an avenue for information sharing and public education, it also holds the possibility for negative use that could harm the integrity of the electoral process.

To that extent, there are social media management tools that the IEC employs in order to mitigate the effects harms, said Mamabolo.

The first, according to him, is social media monitoring, which is reactive. “It looks at specific brands mentioned and sends alerts whenever a specific brand is mentioned online. Each time the brand IEC is mentioned, we receive an alert…and that gives you an opportunity to evaluate whether that mention necessitates a reaction or not.

“We also use social media listening, which is a proactive way to track, analyse and respond to online conversations. Social media listening gives us a complete overview of all online conversations related to our brand.”

With respect to combating disinformation and misinformation, there’s daily monitoring of the platforms and there is an IEC central e-mail to report this, he noted. “We intervene with immediate responses to correct disinformation that comes our way.

“We’ve also found that one of the instruments that are important to disinformation and misinformation is educating social media users on electoral processes. An educated social media user is unlikely to be deceived by misinformation and disinformation; not always 100%, but there’s a better chance of a person perceiving disinformation and misinformation if they’ve been placed in possession of correct information.

“Education of social media users about correct electoral information and processes is a key component of the disinformation campaign.”

He added that partnerships with social media platforms to report disinformation and misinformation are also critical. The IEC also has a complaints platform Real411, developed in partnership with Media Monitoring Africa, to report instances of disinformation and misinformation with regards to the elections.

Anything that goes beyond five minutes on social media is already too late, said the IEC CEO.

“We want to improve our reaction time to complaints received, so that we minimise the deleterious impact of misinformation and disinformation.”