The Independent Electoral Commission and Media Monitoring Africa developed the online platform for citizens to report disinformation they encounter on social media platforms. Pic: Real411.org.za (Screenshot)
Two new digital platforms launched in South Africa this week will make it easier than ever for members of the public to identify, report, submit and track complaints relating to disinformation online. This according to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), who collaborated on the online tools in a bid to pre-empt the impact of disinformation ahead of the country’s sixth general elections.
Digital platforms and social media networks are often misused to spread falsehoods, whether intentional or not, but may also hold the key in the fight against disinformation as South Africans prepare to head to the polls in May.
Ahead of the elections, the newly-launched Real411 (a nod towards the US-Canadian dialling code for information services) provides tools for voters, members of the media, political parties and candidates that can help identify false information and take action against those who spread it. The Political Party Advert Repository, or Padre, on the other hand, can help users differentiate between fake political adverts and real advertising campaigns of political parties.
The IEC’s Chief Electoral Officer Sy Mamabolo said the platforms aim to combat the scourge of disinformation which could unfairly influence the outcome of the election. He said these platforms aim to enhance the digital literacy of election stakeholders at a time when social media platforms are the new frontiers in communication, education, and, unfortunately, deception too.
“This includes highlighting the risks and dangers of false and intentionally misrepresented information on a free and fair election, and in raising the consciousness of the public in relation to this problem.”
From Left: Media Monitoring Africa executive director William Bird, IEC vice-chairperson Janet Love, IEC Chief Electoral Officer Sy Mamabolo, IEC spokesperson Kate Bapela. Pic: @IECSouthAfrica (Twitter)
Mamabolo said a key aspect of the online platform is to ensure that it is easy to report disinformation and lodge complaints. This will also allow the IEC to respond rapidly to potential breaches of the electoral code.
“The dangers of false [messaging] and disinformation have long been recognised within South Africa's electoral system and legislative framework - both the Electoral Act as well as the Electoral Code of Conduct prohibit false information.”
According to Mamabolo the Electoral Code of Conduct also specifically prohibits the use of language that may provoke violence or intimidation.
Janet Love is vice-chairperson of the IEC, and said everyone is aware of how social media has penetrated the South African landscape and continues to grow at a rapid rate. According to Love, survey information at the IEC's disposal indicates that South Africans are active across many platforms, with around 21 million Facebook users, 9 million YouTube users and 8.3 million Twitter users. A further 6.3 million South Africans are on LinkedIn and 6.6 million people use Instagram.
This, according to Love, is why digital information needs everyone’s involvement, to ensure that the platforms do what they have the potential to do. Social media can provide quick and easy information in a manner that can have a wide reach at a relatively low cost.
She warns, however, that the very qualities that makes these platforms ideal for the spread of information are also the qualities that make them attractive for those with more malicious intents. These opportunities for rapid communication and wide dissemination are also challenges in the fight against falsehoods and disinformation, and present authorities with many risks that can prove hard to manage.
Love said it was no accident that the platforms against disinformation were launched on April Fools Day. “We are saying to everybody in South Africa that this is, in fact, a day for us not to be fooled. It is up to us to think really carefully about the information we receive and to recognise that disinformation can undermine the democracy that we sought so hard to secure in our country.”
She believes the platform can be of use to other electoral management bodies around the world, and hopes that South Africans step up and assist the electoral commission in defending the democracy.
The Real411 website allows members of the public to report instances of disinformation, make queries and submit complaints. This can be done by completing an online form about the incident or case in question, as well as choosing reasons why the commission should look into the matter from a checklist.
The form also allows for the user to provide a link to where disinformation has been disseminated online, while users can leave channel and language details for complaints or queries about content broadcast on TV or radio.
Users provide their contact details so that they can stay updated on the status of their complaint, and to ensure that the commission can reach out to them if additional information is needed.
Media Monitoring Africa’s executive director William Bird said the platform’s name - the Real411 - is a colloquial term used by younger South African which stands for “real information”. It stems from the US and Canada, where 411 was the telephone dialling code to reach information services. Bird said all complaints will be received by the IEC's Directorate of Electoral Offences, and electoral guidelines will be used to assess each case.
“It goes to IEC's Directorate of Electoral Offences directly and they review it with support and assistance of experts. Those reviews are based on the guidelines and they will make recommendations to the electoral commissioners.”
On April 4 at 13:00 CAT there were 75 complaints lodged on Real411. Pic Real411.org.za (Screenshot)
Once these recommendations have been made, the electoral commissioners can then rule on the matter and communicate their decision to those involved.
According to Bird, this is a step in the right direction and ensures that the public are engaged and informed every step of the way. “It means that if you submit a complaint then you will know if it's been received and see where it is at each stage of the process. You can log in with your unique reference number and see where things are going.”
The Political Party Advert Repository lets members of the public compare election content they see on social media with authentic campaign adverts created by political parties. Pic: Padre.org.za
The second launch ahead of the South African elections is Padre - the Political Party Advert Repository. Political parties can upload their official adverts and campaigns onto this platform, which will help members of the public distinguish between fake, misleading or even malicious adverts and authentic content created by political parties for their election campaigns.
Padre lists all 48 parties contesting the 2019 election. According to William Bird, political parties can sign up on the platform and upload their political campaigns and adverts, which then becomes accessible by the public. The campaigns can then be searched by party name or by entering a specific keyword.
“If you get something on WhatsApp, or any other social media platform, you can quickly and easily see whether this is a real advert or a rubbish advert from any of the political parties,” said Bird.
To access the Real411, click here.
To access Padre, click here.