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Google vows to combat data manipulation during SA elections

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Yolanda Mlonzi, government affairs and public policy analyst at Google Africa.
Yolanda Mlonzi, government affairs and public policy analyst at Google Africa.

Google has vowed to Parliament that it will protect the integrity of SA’s upcoming elections, saying it will not allow any manipulative agenda on its platforms.

Google along with tech firms Twitter and Facebook were invited by the South African Parliament’s Committee of Communications and Digital Technologies yesterday to respond to questions about misinformation on their platforms.

The Internet is increasingly playing an important role in transforming the way citizens participate and engage in the elections across the globe, with social media companies facing accusations of violating data privacy and spreading misinformation and fake news.

Google, the only tech company that pitched for the Parliament hearing, has repeatedly faced backlash from government leaders and citizens across the globe who accused it of posing a serious threat during elections and being used as a tool to spread propaganda.

During the virtual hearing yesterday, Yolanda Mlonzi, government affairs and public policy analyst at Google Africa, told Parliament that Google commits to combating any data manipulation as political parties prepare for campaigns leading up to SA’s municipal elections on 27 October.

“As Google, we are not here to push an agenda. We realise that as a company we have a shared responsibility in terms of the type of information that people have access to, because they are influenced by the information they receive.

“We have invested in trust and safety measures for our users, investing over $1 billion annually [globally] into content moderation and we have partnerships to make our platforms better. We have been walking the walk with the IEC since the 2019 elections and we have been thinking since then on how we can be more intentional about how we can further support elections in the country.”

The Democratic Alliance (DA) previously expressed concerns about the role of social media in spreading misinformation around COVID-19 and the elections.

“In the South African context and in line with the country’s Constitution, stronger content moderation would mean removing content that incites violence and advocates for hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion. Full freedom of expression that does not fall into this category must be protected,” said the DA.

Explaining Google’s partnership with electoral commission, the IEC, Mlonzi pointed out that together, the organisations have designed programmes to help with the elections by training over 60 political parties on tools to identify misinformation and verify information. They were also taught how to build campaigns on YouTube.

Google also has a partnership with media body, the South African National Editors' Forum, which has spearheaded programmes that trained over 250 journalists across all nine provinces on how to spot and combat misinformation using Google and third-party tools, such as fact-checking and verification technologies.

“We have a targeted campaign in helping voters through Google tools which are apolitical – this means when someone is searching for political-related information on Google, we do not push a certain narrative, but we surface results which come from accurate sources and we work continuously to ensure voters access authoritative information through their Google search results,” Mlonzi noted.

Google has been operating in Africa for 15 years, with over 150 employees across the continent, with 70 of those based in SA.

The Internet giant says it has over 20 000 team members who are constantly working in the background to take down content which defies its terms of service.

In her presentation, Mlonzi displayed numerous tools and security technologies aimed at strengthening user privacy and protecting users from cyber bulling and other forms of online risks.

“Our approach on information quality is premised on four key pillars: remove harmful content, raise high-quality content and authoritative sources, reduce the spread of potentially harmful information, and reward publishers and content creators who create good quality information, because we also believe that as much as we can take down content, education is critical.”

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