IEC to fight fake news on social media

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 02 Apr 2019

Political parties have in recent months ramped up campaigning ahead of the general election, but that means false information, especially on social media, is also on the rise.

As a result, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) yesterday launched an online platform to curb the scourge of fake news intended to unfairly influence the elections. The platform is hosted on a Web site called "The Real 411".

South Africans will take to the polls on 8 May to elect a new National Assembly and new provincial legislatures in each province. This will be the sixth election held since the end of the apartheid system in 1994.

Developed in conjunction with Media Monitoring Africa, the platform will facilitate the online submission and tracking of complaints relating to misinformation encountered on social media platforms.

According to the IEC, the reason of appointing an external firm to facilitate this process is to ensure its independence and integrity in relation to the investigation of such complaints.

Chief electoral officer Sy Mamabolo says once a complaint is submitted online, it will be referred to a panel of experts under the umbrella of the Electoral Commission's Directorate for Electoral Offences.

"This panel, with expertise in media law, social media and disinformation, will assess and investigate the complaint and make a recommendation to the commission for consideration."

The panel will make recommendations for possible further action for the consideration of the IEC.

The IEC will determine what action to take, which may include requesting social media platforms to remove the offensive or inaccurate material, requesting political parties or candidates to clarify the information, issuing media statements to alert the public and correct the misinformation, as well as referring the matter for criminal or civil legal action, if necessary.

"The site will contain a database of all complaints received and their progress so that other social media users can see if an issue has already been dealt with and what the outcome was," notes Mamabolo.

Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird adds: "Without the necessary skills and techniques to distinguish real information from disinformation, the likelihood of members of the public being misled is increasing.

"While some efforts to build critical digital literacy skills have been made, it is essential, in the lead up to elections, that concerted efforts to develop digital literacy skills are rolled out. Not only will such skills have lasting impact but the more people who are equipped to combat disinformation, the harder it will be to spread."

To help distinguish between official and fake adverts, political parties contesting the 8 May elections have been asked to upload all official advertising material used by the party to an online political advert repository.

This will allow anyone to check whether a poster or digital banner is legitimate or has been digitally altered, says the IEC.