Protect polls from trolls

2018-07-01 06:26
Elections in South Africa. Picture: AP

Elections in South Africa. Picture: AP

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Next year’s elections environment will be very different to past polls, particularly because of the growing role that social media plays in shaping and influencing opinions.

While it may feel as though some of our nation’s core challenges have stayed the same, the media environment has changed dramatically since we last voted in national and provincial elections.

In our last elections, social media remained marginal, even though some parties used it successfully to campaign.

We have seen an exponential growth in the use of social media since then – and more than our fair share of hate speech and inflammatory language – which is going to make the 2019 elections very different.

We must be under no illusion that the rapid rise in the use of social media brings with it both potential and danger.

We have been through the Bell Pottinger campaign and witnessed several international elections, including on our own continent, being influenced by social media, whether as a tool for gathering and disseminating voter education and information or as a source of misinformation, or as efforts to destabilise and influence voter outcomes.

In the South African context, this growth in the use of social media for political and social campaigning is taking place in a regulatory vacuum. The current electoral code contains no reference to the use of social media – which means that as things stand, social media use will be unregulated next year.

As we prepare for the elections, it is critical we look at how we can get the best out of social media, and at the same time ensure its abuse doesn’t materially undermine our democratic processes.

The big question is: How?

One way is for us to ensure we look at amending our electoral code of conduct to include social media. This will ensure parties and their election campaigners take it on board formally and agree to abide by the same core conditions and elements as they do for other media.

Social media is a tricky beast to get a handle on for two main reasons:

• Its significant, unending and ever-expanding glut of information; and

• It is still evolving, and we have no real idea where it is going or how long it will be in its current form.

These factors, combined with the fact that most of the big platforms are global, means it can be tricky to regulate, and difficult to develop tools for accountability.

That said, we have seen that countries such as India, the UK and New Zealand have already amended their electoral codes and processes to ensure social media is included. It is critical we learn from them and effect relevant changes in our own context.

There are three broad areas we need to look into.

Firstly, for all the dangers and hazards, social media presents an incredible opportunity in an election period for information dissemination, voter education and engagement. It can be used by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), parties and candidates, and while no even contest, it does allow smaller parties to reach broader audiences.

It is essential then that this potential is harnessed, and that the IEC, in particular, develops a comprehensive social media strategy and that it supports ongoing engagement.

It is also critical that partnerships with platforms such as Google, Facebook and Twitter are established as all have extensive experience in elections and have already developed and offer a range of tools that can help the electoral process.

Secondly, while social media can be more affordable for smaller parties, and while it does to a degree provide for more equitable access, we have also seen how, in the absence of any transparency or accountability mechanisms, more powerful well-researched parties can use it to gain unfair advantage.

Because of the unique ability of social media to tailor adverts to individual interests, it makes tracking tricky, as they differ from one person to the other and not all will be targeted.

Currently, we have a well-developed system for broadcast media during an election period when it comes to advertisement and party election broadcasts. While we cannot apply all the same rules, the principles of openness and transparency must be adhered to so people know who has spent how much on different platforms and what the advertisements look like.

The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections is already setting the trend here in its principles. It is in our interests, and that of fair and credible elections, that we adopt similar provisions.

The third area requires us to focus on the dark side of social media, where people will seek to abuse it for their own ends. They may wish to spread hatred, misinformation and rumours, or seek to destabilise the entire process.

What is clear is that we need to ensure we have mechanisms in place that allow for the dark side to be combatted.

We will need easy reporting mechanisms, for a start. If a member of the public or party feels something contravenes the code, they need a place to report it. It might be a doctored image, a message of hatred or incitement or masquerading as news.

We need to ensure it can be easily reported in such a manner that the complainant can be assured it will be quickly and effectively assessed.

There is already precedence for this. In Kenya, for example, Google set up a hotline for people to report posts that may have incited violence, and where they were found to do so they were removed.

In addition to reactive processes like the user based complaints, it is imperative that we allow for monitoring to also take place where networks of users and bots can be identified and action taken.

We have little time and much to do, we might not cover all areas, and we will likely make errors – but if we go into the election period without making critical changes to our code, we may well be risking our emerging democracy.

- Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa

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