Social media platforms need stricter policies to curb fake news - SA Regulator

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Information Regulator Pansy Tlakula. (Photo: City Press)
Information Regulator Pansy Tlakula. (Photo: City Press)

Information Regulator Pansy Tlakula says social media platforms need stricter policies which are more in line with national laws, as the country grapples with the effect of fake news and disinformation during elections.

Speaking at a Cape Town gathering of delegates from 34 election management bodies from across Africa, Tlakula said: "We cannot have a situation where the policy of a social media company violates the laws of a country."

The conference, hosted by the Electoral Commission of South Africa and UN Development Programme at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, is looking into the risks and rewards social media poses for elections.

She cited the fact that South Africa's Electoral Act banned politicians from publishing false information about other candidates or parties, while Facebook insisted it would not regulate political speech on its platform even if the messages contained falsehoods as an example of the disconnect.

A need for regulation

Fellow panellist Avani Singh, a social media law expert, said the regulation of social media sites were needed, but argued against state regulation. 

She said countries which opted for state regulation criminalised those publishing fake news and disinformation, which was felt to have a chilling effect on the right to freedom of speech.

"The way in which it is panning out is it's taking the form of criminalisation of speech. Co-regulation brings together a variety of different stakeholders, including social media platforms to make sure that the power dynamics that come into play are evenly balanced as different voices are heard."

Singh implored the African Union to work as a bloc to ensure co-regulation was adopted across the continent so that an appropriate balance could be struck between the right to freedom of speech and the rights of people to receive accurate information.

She said some African countries had adopted state regulation, which led to people being criminally charged and jailed, or fined heavily, when more creative ways of holding people accountable for their social media posts could be found.

Twitter defends ban

Twitter, meanwhile, defended its ban on political party advertising.

Its public policy manager for southern Africa, Emmanuel Lubanzadio, told the gathering political party consultants were found to have been increasingly posting misleading content to constituents.

Representatives of political parties were not happy, questioning why they were not allowed to advertise, and correct misleading information posted about them by individuals and members of the mainstream media.

But Lubanzadio said Twitter executives believed "political reach should not be something people can purchase". 

Facebook, Twitter and Google representatives are also attending and have made presentations on steps they have taken to combat fake news and the spread of disinformation, specifically during elections.

These include responding quickly to complaints by users and fact-checking companies helping to red-flag misleading posts.

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