A woman casts her vote for the general elections at the Presbyterian Church ballot station in Dobsonville, Johannesburg, on May 8, 2019. - South Africans began voting today in national elections which the ruling ANC, in power since 1994, is favourite to win despite corruption scandals, sluggish economic growth and record unemployment. The ANC has won all the past five elections, but todays vote is set to be an electoral test on whether the party has staunched a decline in popularity. (Photo by Michele Spatari / AFP)
The challenge to combat and debunk disinformation and misinformation online continues to be a challenge and came into sharper focus during South Africa's general elections.
Reports of Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) officials not allowing women wearing nail polish to vote, voting stations being moved without warning and racism allegations levelled at the IEC caused a stir online and in some cases were later proven to be false.
Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) in partnership with the IEC introduced an initiative called The Real411 to help fight the disinformation war.
Search engine giant Google also entered the fray using its vast resources to train journalists on how to use its tools in order to identify and debunk misinformation and disinformation.
These initiatives proved incredibly useful to not only debunk false information but also to track the scourge of disinformation that could have threatened the integrity of South Africa's elections.
Nomshado Lubisi, MMA communications manager, says while there was a spread of disinformation across the internet during this period, it did not derail the process.
"From an overview of the period, it didn’t seem to be a deliberate strategy of disinformation campaigning - although we are still busy with some research into this."
"There is definitely a threat of future disinformation campaigns in election periods. I think that we aren’t seeing a decline, rather an increase in the use of social media in election campaigning, and with that, an increase in potential disinformation online. I think we have to be proactive about the threats of disinformation, and that’s why a platform such as The Real411 is such an important initiative," Lubisi said.
The Real411 received just over 100 complaints and counting since its launch on April 1. Many of the complaints related to social media posts on Facebook and Twitter as well as WhatsApp messages.
Mich Atagana, head of communication and public relations at Google South Africa, said the threat of disinformation is a concern but it is up to the media and citizens to take the matter into their own hands.
"We live in a world where people on the internet will say things that are not true or that are 70% true and 30% made up – that is the world we live in."
She added that this was why organisations like Africa Check are so important in South Africa because then they can educate people. They also allow people to fact-check for themselves.
"I think the real role of the press is [seeing] disinformation and actively saying: 'This is not true.' The onus is on everybody to make sure that they are debunking information, me as an individual if I see something that I know to not be true on the internet I should flag that and debunk that," said Atagana.
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