Google pledges to support integrity of SA elections

Admire Moyo
By Admire Moyo, ITWeb's news editor.
Johannesburg, 02 May 2024
Google notes that during elections, both seasoned and new voters in SA will be seeking information around various candidates.
Google notes that during elections, both seasoned and new voters in SA will be seeking information around various candidates.

Internet search giant Google has taken several measures to counter threats, such as fake news, misinformation and disinformation, during SA’s upcoming elections.

This, as several social media companies – including Facebook parent Meta and TikTok − have taken their own measures to mitigate against these threats.

ITWeb reported earlier this week that the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) is warning it will take strict measures against political party election candidates who deliberately peddle disinformation or fake news online.

South Africa goes to the polls on 29 May to the elect the leadership for the seventh administration out of the 70 political parties and 11 independent candidates that were published by the IEC as final contestants in these elections.

In total, there are 14 903 candidates vying for 887 seats in the National and Provincial Legislatures.

The Information Regulator recently said 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 the eyes of the public.

In a statement, Google says while this milestone is certainly major – in an age where misinformation and disinformation place the integrity of the electoral process and safety of campaigns at high risk – technology has a crucial role to play in safeguarding from tactics like online abuse, deceit and the like.

Google is working with industry players such as the IEC, Media Monitoring Africa and TikTok through a framework of cooperation, designed to protect and safeguard the integrity of the elections and fight against misinformation.

This framework allows signatories to work together to promote access to information, enables candidates to conduct awareness campaigns on elections, and provides training to political parties and other key stakeholders on addressing misinformation.

Role of AI

Abongile Mashele, head of government affairs and public policy at Google, says 2024 is an important year for elections across the world, with many countries going to the polls to elect their leaders for the forthcoming years.

“In line with our commitment to helping organise the world’s information, making it universally accessible and useful, Google has undertaken a number of steps to support election integrity in South Africa by surfacing high-quality information to voters, safeguarding our platforms from abuse and equipping campaigns with the best-in-class security tools and training,” says Mashele.

“We’ll also do this work with an increased focus on the role artificial intelligence (AI) might play,” she adds.

Google notes that during elections, both seasoned and new voters in SA will be actively seeking information around various candidates, voting locations and campaign agendas.

Mashile says when people search for topics like “how to vote”, they will find information about ID requirements, voting stations and more – linking to authoritative sources such as the IEC.

During an election, she says, voters across the country come to YouTube to get news and information from a diverse set of authoritative news sources.

“For example, when voters search for election-related topics, YouTube’s recommendation system prominently surfaces election content in search results, the homepage and the ‘watch next’ panel.

“At the same time, human reviewers and machine learning technology combine to detect, review and remove content that violates our policies.”

To support responsible and transparent political advertising, all advertisers who wish to run election ads in SA must complete an identity verification process and display an in-ad disclosure that clearly shows who paid for the ad, says Mashile.

“We also limit targeting of election ads to the following general categories: age, gender and general location (postal code level). All election ads are published in our Political Ads Transparency Report, where anyone can look up information, such as how much was spent and how many impressions were received.”

Besides ensuring South African voters are fully equipped with accurate and timely information, she points out Google is working to help high-risk users, such as campaign and election officials, improve their security and to educate them on how to use Google products and services to connect with voters and manage their digital presence.

Beefing up security

On security, she says Google offers free services like the Advanced Protection Program and Project Shield, which provide unlimited protection against distributed denial of service attacks.

“In collaboration with the IEC, we have trained representatives of political parties on our elections integrity work, including product policies, recommended security protocols, as well as reporting and removal processes for harmful and illegal content,” Mashile notes.

Google is also funding a fact-checking coalition led by Africa Check with South African media, which works together to fact-check claims made by political parties, provide voters with reliable, non-partisan information on key issues, and equip the public with the skills they need to identify election misinformation.

Africa Check is also supporting national and local media with election reporting training and workshops.

“Through the Google News Initiative, we will support a further six fact-checking coalitions across the African continent as more countries head to the polls this year,” says Mashile.

As more people interact with AI-generated content, Google says it has introduced policies and tools to help audiences navigate.

“We were the first tech company to require advertisers to disclose when their election ads include synthetic content that inauthentically depicts real or realistic-looking people or events. This includes ads that were created with the use of AI. Our ads policies already prohibit the use of manipulated media to mislead people, like deep fakes or doctored content,” Mashile says.