IEC launches groundbreaking website to tackle disinformation

The Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) and Media Monitoring Africa have partnered to fight disinformation in the run-up to the elections, chief election officer Sy Mamabolo said on Monday. 

The website Real411.org.za will deal with complaints about language that incites violence, discrimination and the publication of false and defamatory allegations about parties.

And if it's successful, the project could constitute groundbreaking work for all electoral bodies, according to IEC vice chairperson Janet Love.

IEC vice chairperson Janet Love added that through widespread social media use, electoral commissions are on a mission to find ways to prevent disinformation.

"South Africa is taking on the challenge in a way that we are attempting to find lessons for ourselves, to find a better understanding but equally, to be able to give an opportunity to our colleagues in their electoral management bodies some insights about successes, strengths and weaknesses of the solution that we are looking at," Love said.

She added that dealing with disinformation did not mean curtailing freedom of opinion. 

Mamabolo explained that the website would enable the rapid submission and consideration of any complaints of alleged digital disinformation.

The intimidation of journalists on social media will also be investigated via the website as well as complaints about journalists who spread disinformation on social media, the IEC said. 

Once a complaint is submitted online, it is referred to a panel of experts under the umbrella of the IEC and recommendations are made, according to Mamabolo.

Complainants and members of the public will also be able to track the progress of investigations. After a finding has been made, the complainants will be sent an SMS with the findings, he said. 

All political parties participating in the elections gave the pilot project their nod of approval, he added.

"No party wishes to see its key messages distorted or abused. In this regard, they have welcomed the idea of a political advertisement repository where any member of the public can check for themselves the veracity of campaign material and quickly determine whether the poster or pamphlet has been photoshopped or otherwise altered to undermine the party," he said. 

Media Monitoring Africa director William Bird said the site brought transparency and accountability to the election process under the legal framework. 

Complaints to Real411.org, he said, would go through to the IEC and its commissioners will make a ruling.

Bird said the donors of Media Monitoring Africa were responsible for its kickstart. 

He also explained that the website would be in English. However, those who wished to make submissions in their home languages were free to do so. 

"Social media is the new frontier for communication, education and deception. We are not arrogant enough to believe we have found a solution to the problem of disinformation on social media. We believe that this pilot will help us and perhaps others around the world to begin to fight back against those who seek to undermine our hard-won democracy behind anonymity and licence of social media," Mamabolo said.

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