IEC fires warning shot at political fake news pushers

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 30 Apr 2024
South Africans will take to the polls on 29 May to elect the leadership of the seventh administration.
South Africans will take to the polls on 29 May to elect the leadership of the seventh administration.

The Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) has warned it will take strict measures against political party election candidates who deliberately peddle disinformation or fake news online.

Those found to be guilty of such transgressions face the possibility of being disqualified from participating in the elections, among other forms of punishment, said Sy Mamabolo, chief electoral officer of the IEC.

Mamabolo was speaking during a recent media briefing held in Johannesburg, where the partnership between the local electoral commission, civil society organisations and TikTok was announced.

The IEC has established a multi-stakeholder partnership with major online platforms and non-profit organisations − including Google, Meta, AfricaCheck and Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) − to curb the spread of disinformation, in the run-up to, during and beyond SA’s 2024 elections.

South Africans will take to the polls on 29 May to elect the leadership of the seventh administration, in what is expected to be the most contested election in the last 30 years.

Mamabolo highlighted the importance of credible information as the lifeblood of all democracies.

The dissemination of disinformation has huge potential to undermine the fairness and credibility of elections, posing a threat to the exercise of various rights and access to constitutional protection, he warned.

Responding to a question from ITWeb about the penalty or punishment handed to political candidates or party leaders who are found guilty of spreading falsehoods online, Mamabolo explained that when such an incident takes place, the IEC lays a complaint with the Electoral Court, which is the enforcer of the Electoral Code of Conduct.

“Most of the dissemination of false information that is spread online is also prohibited in terms of the Electoral Code of Conduct. The Electoral Court can take a number of steps, if it is the political candidate who is disseminating disinformation online.

“It could disqualify that candidate from participating in the elections. If it's a party leader that is found to be guilty, their actions can cause their party to be deregistered from participating in the elections. The Electoral Court can also order fines to the value of up to R200 000,” he noted.

The Electoral Court is a South African court that oversees the IEC and the conduct of the elections. It was established by the Electoral Commission Act of 1996 to replace a Special Electoral Court, which oversaw the 1994 elections and has status similar to that of a division of the High Court, according to the IEC.

Disinformation is defined as false, inaccurate or misleading information designed to intentionally cause harm. Within an election context, this includes false information intended to unduly affect participation in, and the outcome of, the elections, states the IEC.

Mamabolo referenced an incident that emerged during the previous local elections, when a political candidate of the Economic Freedom Fighters in Tshwane was disqualified from participating in the elections, as a result of allegedly spreading fake news online.

IEC chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo. (Photograph source: GCIS)
IEC chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo. (Photograph source: GCIS)

Oftentimes the perpetrator’s objective is to disarm social media users, by creating a misleading narrative, often inciting unnecessary fear or panic among users, he asserted.

“Even in this upcoming election, I feel there are incidents that will go before the Electoral Court. The IEC would be failing in its objective to carry out its responsibility without fear and without favour and to always be faithful to the constitution and the letter of the law, if such actions go without consequences.”

Such incidences are often heightened during the period leading up to the elections, he continued.

Real411, a system developed by the MMA, is a key component of the IEC’s combined efforts to deal with disinformation and misinformation, he continued.

The digital disinformation reporting platform forms part of the work of the Electoral Commission’s Directorate of Electoral Offences, which was first established ahead of the 2016 Municipal Elections, to investigate alleged breaches of the Code of Conduct and prohibited conduct as contained in the Electoral Act,

According to Mamabolo, Real411 reported complaints about disinformation will be considered by a panel of relevant experts, including those with expertise in media law, social and digital media.

Social media platforms have appointed teams during the election period to prioritise the detection and removal of fake news content from their platforms, in terms of their respective policies and undertakings.

Meta and TikTok have established an online election resource centre on their respective platforms, to educate users, as part of their multi-faceted approach to support the integrity of the 2024 South African elections.

Discussing the punishment for social media users who are reported and found guilty of spreading fake news, Mamabolo explained: “All violations of the Electoral Code of Conduct are criminal violations. Even if general members of the public are responsible for spreading fake news, that is of a criminal nature. A criminal case can be opened against them and the South African Police Service has to investigate them and prosecute them if found guilty.”

Prosecution is often difficult to pursue because the law enforcement authorities don't give such criminal offences the priority they deserve, he concluded.