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IEC, social media partners fight fake news as elections near

Staff Writer
By Staff Writer, ITWeb
Johannesburg, 21 Oct 2021

Following 2019’s joint effort to deal with disinformation, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) have now partnered with social media platforms to fight the spread of false information in the run-up to the municipal elections.

On 1 November, South Africans will go to the polls to elect councils for all districts, metropolitan and local municipalities in each of the country's nine provinces.

According to IEC and MMA, they reached an agreement with Google, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok to work in support of their efforts to curb disinformation.

Electoral Commission vice-chairperson Janet Love says the framework is important because disinformation poses a threat to the exercise of various rights and to the access of constitutional protections, including freedom of expression, access to credible information and the freedom to make informed political choices.

Says Love: “The dissemination of disinformation has huge potential to undermine the fairness and credibility of elections. It also threatens democratic political and policy-making processes. Credible information is the lifeblood of all democracies. Trustworthy information is crucial in the process that enables citizens to choose their leaders.

“There has already been commitment to and contributions from the platforms to providing training to enable the identification of disinformation and to maximise the positive communication opportunities that digital platforms potentially provide. This has been offered to a wide range of role-players, including political parties.

“Working to counteract misinformation and distortions from becoming the focus of citizens, the Electoral Commission and MMA entered into this ground-breaking agreement to cooperate with the four major social media platforms.”

The commission and MMA will use the Real411 system developed by the MMA as a key component of their respective and combined efforts to deal with disinformation.

William Bird, MMA Africa director, explains: “Disinformation goes against the code of conduct and the electoral laws. On Real411, once a complaint has been reviewed and points to constituting disinformation or misinformation, the commission will notify the affected online platform. This notification will be acknowledged and processed as expeditiously as possible by the online platform.

“The social media platforms have appointed persons or teams during the election period to prioritise referrals from the commission. Actions taken by the platforms are in terms of their policies and may include the removal of the content, the publication of an advisory warning, and/or the delisting of the post.”

The world has most recently witnessed a surge in digital disinformation, particularly on social media platforms, about elections, COVID-19, vaccines and 5G, to name a few topics.

During the recent riots and looting sprees in SA, it became apparent social media was used as a tool to inform and mobilise people to participate, while others opted to use the platforms to spread misinformation, or further inflame the situation.

In September, the 2021 Local Government Election Anti-Disinformation Project was unveiled, to fight misinformation ahead of the local government elections.

The IEC notes the cooperation with the social media platforms will help to enable the rapid submission and consideration of any complaints received in relation to alleged disinformation.

While they have policies and mechanisms in place to counter disinformation, the social media partners note the initiative with the IEC and MMA will contribute to their efforts.

Facebook head of public policy in Southern Africa Nomonde Gongxeka-Seopa says: “Elections continue to be a priority for us at Facebook. Over the years, we’ve dedicated unprecedented resources, with protecting election integrity at heart, including our ongoing work in reducing misinformation, supporting civic engagement and increasing transparency in political advertising. We’re looking forward to receiving the final framework from the Electoral Commission.”

“Twitter’s number one priority is the health of the public conversation and we are deeply committed to protecting and supporting election conversations around the world,” says Emmanuel Lubanzadio, head of public policy for Sub-Saharan Africa at Twitter.

“We recognise the role Twitter plays in political discourse and will continue to ensure those using the service are doing so in a safe and secure manner. Since 2019, we have banned political adverts, as we believe political reach should be earned, not bought.”

Fortune Mgwili-Sibanda, public policy and government relations director at TikTok, says the video-sharing platform does not permit misinformation that causes harm to individuals, community, or the larger public, regardless of intent.

“This applies across all content on our platform, irrespective of whether it’s user-generated or paid ads. In fact, we have taken the additional step to prohibit paid political ads, as we don't believe this is part of the experience users come to TikTok for – as the last sunny corner of the internet.

“We are supportive of the Electoral Commission and MMA’s efforts to combat the spread of non-legitimate information on online platforms in the lead up to the municipal elections.”

Charles Murito, director for government affairs and public policy of Sub-Saharan Africa at Google, notes: “Google’s mission is to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. Disinformation runs counter to that mission and, therefore, to our core business interest.

“That is why we invest heavily to counter efforts seeking to deceive, harm, or take advantage of users, and curb the spread of low-quality information on our services.”