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Partnership project looks to tackle pre-election misinformation

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A new project that aims to fight misinformation and disinformation ahead of the local government elections has been unveiled.

The 2021 Local Government Election Anti-Disinformation Project is organised by partners that include advocacy and civil society groups Right2Know, Code for Africa, Superlinear, WITNESS, former MP Phumzile Van Damme, as well as clinical psychologist, neuroscientist and cognitive behaviour therapist Dr David Rosenstein.

The partners will maintain their independence and, on a voluntary basis, collaborate to tackle disinformation in the lead-up to the elections, according to a statement.

The project will tackle disinformation monitoring and combatting, with a focus on online political discourse and messaging emanating from political parties and government; advocacy focusing on big tech, PR firms and the use of video technology to expose human rights abuses and combat disinformation; as well as behavioural science aimed at understanding the believability of disinformation in SA.

“Over the last few months, the project's partners have collaborated to build a collaborative network that combines data science, tech tools, behavioural science, media and social analysis, fact-checking and civic education,” notes the statement.

“The project is in no way intended to infringe on the rights of South Africans to express their views freely online. Upholding the right to freedom of expression is a core tenet of the project.

“We will carefully monitor and advocate against any attempts of censorship, particularly by government. There has been a concerning clampdown on social media by African leaders – digital authoritarianism.”

The world has most recently witnessed a surge in false information, especially on social media, about elections, COVID-19, vaccines and 5G, to name a few.

In the recent riots and looting sprees that took place in SA, it became apparent that social media platforms were 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.

According to the statement, in its first phase, the project will focus on public education about disinformation and misinformation in its nature, identifying it and its associated terms.

It adds that other initiatives will be announced in the coming weeks. “It is an honour to do ‘country duty’ for South Africa against a problem that not only exists online but has real-life consequences that often escalates during election season. This year, COVID-19 has made the social media terrain even more fertile for disinformation.

“COVID-19 has created what the World Health Organisation calls an ‘infodemic’. This happens when there is an overload of information, disinformation and misinformation in digital and physical environments during a disease outbreak.”

The project’s organisers stress that disinformation and misinformation require urgent action in SA.

“For democracy, the effects of online disinformation and misinformation have been identified by experts as a major threat to democracy.

“During an election season, disinformation is often spread to skew public discourse and manipulate voters. For an election to be free and fair, voters need to have accurate information about parties, candidates and other factors in order to inform their voting decisions.

“For this to happen, disinformation needs to be removed from the equation. While South Africa’s Independent Electoral Commission Code of Conduct prohibits political parties from publishing false information, this does not necessarily mean that this is followed.” 

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