Disinformation destroys democracy and poses a clear threat to free and fair elections. William Bird and Thandi Smith break down tips to combat mis and disinformation.
With the local government elections now set to go ahead on 1 November 2021, we can expect the political environment to heat up even more.
To help the public navigate these times, we have developed our top six tips to help you, but it’s also important to know what else is being done in South Africa to help ensure the elections are free and fair.
Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) approach the elections with the following three key assumptions: Firstly, anyone who can should vote. It doesn’t matter who you vote for, but it does matter that you vote. Even if you spoil your ballot because you feel that despite the parties, there isn’t a choice, it is important that you go and make your mark.
Our second assumption is that you can and should be able to rely on credible news media to help unpack, explain, and share the key issues and stories in the run-up to the elections. For our media, we ask them to approach the elections coverage by asking what it is that the public knows, what don’t they know, and what do they need to know? Our news media plays an critical role, not just in helping us know what the parties are up to but in the age of mis and disinformation they also offer news and information you can rely on to make informed decisions. Credible media are an essential part of elections being free and fair.
Thirdly, we know mis and disinformation will increase in this period. Living through the Covid-19 pandemic, we have all been exposed to mis and disinformation about Covid-19. We know that as tensions rise, so too do the levels of mis and disinformation. There is a lot at stake and many stand to gain or lose, and as we have seen in elections around the world some will use mis and disinformation to push their agenda. As we have written previously, disinformation destroys democracy and poses a clear threat to free and fair elections.
So, what is being done?
Having monitored the media in every one of South Africa’s democratic elections, we will once again be monitoring many of the news media to assess if they are covering elections fairly, comprehensively and from a citizen’s perspective. We will soon have a dashboard on our site where you will be able to track how the media are performing in this regard. If you are more than just an avid news junkie, go look at the tools on offer on the South African National Editors Forum (SANEF) Elections Portal.
Combatting disinformation is a task being tackled by a range of groups and organisations. There are fact-checkers like Africa Check, investigators like Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFR Lab) and Code for Africa, network analysts like the Centre for Analysis and Behaviour Change (CABC), and other partnerships and collaborations between many of those working to combat disinformation.
MMA is focused on three specific actions to help mitigate mis and disinformation.
As we did in 2019 for our national elections, our chief role is working with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to support and address complaints about mis and disinformation through the Real411 platform.
If you report mis and disinformation and it has something to do with the elections, it will be reviewed and acted upon, but the IEC will have the final say.
Real411 can request platforms like Facebook, Youtube and Twitter to take down content and spread counter-narratives to combat mis and disinformation.
The IEC has powers under the Electoral Act and can ask the SAPS to investigate, take matters to the Electoral Court, and it can also act against parties and members.
MMA’s second focus area is around working with the IEC and the platforms. A lot of work has been taking place behind the scenes with the IEC and platforms looking at how they can work together. It is an important step that will indicate a cooperative approach in combatting mis and disinformation in the lead up to the elections. The platforms offer an incredibly positive opportunity to demonstrate that while they are multi-national giants, they also take local elections and democracy seriously.
MMA’s third focus area is political advertising.
Building on a pilot form 2019 and working with the IEC, political parties will upload their political adverts to a common website to ensure there is a public repository. The public will soon be able to go check the political party advert repository (PADRE) to see if the political ads they see on social media are real or misinformation. It’s a transparency tool that will encourage parties to be more transparent in their advertising and the public to check whether what they see is real or rubbish.
So, what can you do? MMA’s top Six Tips
- See something, Do Something – Report to Real411: We need people to stand up and act against those who seek to exploit fears, those who display no compassion, who seek to heighten fear. You can help by reporting digital harms to Real411. It won’t stop disinformation, but it may reduce the spread and cause less harm. We all must play our part in combating and mitigating these digital offences. If you suspect that content you come across could potentially be disinformation, hate speech, harassment of journalists or incitement to violence, there is something you can do about it.
- Be Skeptical and Pause: Be skeptical of content you receive via your social networks. If a story is outrageous, makes you angry or fearful, double-check before you share. It may well be true but pause before sharing.
- Check the User and URL: If you do use social media to receive news, make sure you check the user details, check that the URL loads to a credible site. If in doubt check other credible news sites (you can also use MMA’s extension, KnowNews, to check credible versus dodgy news sites). Chances are, if it is the kind of outrageous or scary story, it seems other media will have the same one.
- Credibility of Sources: As you read, ask how many people have been accessed for the story. Does the story name them and tell you where they are from? If the source is anonymous, check the story to see if there is other credible information to back up the claims being made. If there is only one source who is not named and no other backup information shared with you, be very, very, cautious about sharing or believing the story.
- Diversity and Silence: As you read, ask yourself if there is a voice or view that should be in the story, but that isn’t? Ask if the person speaking is a man or a woman? As you read, ask whose voices you are not hearing or what stories you are not reading about. You may find many stories about party politics, but what about gender-based violence, climate change, or child rights?
- Look for Fairness: When watching or reading about the elections, ask which parties have been accessed and help look for fairness. Ask which parties we hear from and which ones we tend not to. Ask which areas we read about and are covered and which ones we seldom hear about? Our approach is that several aspects can shift a story from being fair to biased. For example, if the BAT party says the CAT party are all thieves do, they give the CAT party a chance to reply? If you read the same media, do they always only access the BAT party, or if they speak to the CAT party do they get much less time?
Remember, we are in that magical period where political parties need to show us that they care. So, in addition to asking about what they will improve in your area, ask them to issue one public statement a month in the lead up to elections that highlight and condemn any attacks on our journalists AND then demonstrate what action they took to help combat that.
If they are edgy or push some other nonsense agenda don’t vote for them because they don’t believe in democracy.
- William Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa
- Thandi Smith is Head of Programmes at Media Monitoring Africa.
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