Lies, damned lies and dodgy data: Voting in South Africa

Workers from the Independent Electoral Commission work at their desks at the national results operations centre as they await the conclusion of the voting process, in Midrand, South Africa May 29, 2024. REUTERS/Ihsaan Haffejee

Workers from the Independent Electoral Commission work at their desks at the national results operations centre as they await the conclusion of the voting process, in Midrand, South Africa May 29, 2024. REUTERS/Ihsaan Haffejee

What’s the context?

After election marked by waves of disinformation, South African digital activists call on platforms to share data

  • Disinformation disrupts political life
  • Threat of unrest unleashed by historic vote
  • 'Data is key - a human right'

JOHANNESBURG - From deepfake Donald Trumps endorsing key contenders, to claims the vote was rigged, South Africa is awash with online disinformation as political players thrash out a coalition deal after an historic election.

Digital activists want to monitor who is behind all the post-vote propaganda, but say they are hampered by high costs and high-walled platforms: the sort of challenges their Western counterparts rarely face.

"It's like we are fighting against it (disinformation) with our hands tied behind our back," said William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA), a South African news and human rights watchdog.

MMA's disinformation reporting website Real411, has experienced roughly a six-fold increase in complaints during the election period, Bird said.

If social media propaganda is to be believed, Trump has endorsed former president Jacob Zuma's new party while the leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, was in cahoots with the CIA to steal the elections.

Given the deluge of fake news, half stories and outright lies, a dozen digital rights and research groups have signed a statement calling on social platform companies such as Google, Meta, TikTok and X to allow open access to their data.

They say their aim is to protect 'election integrity' and that now is no time for complacency in the delicate post-election period. 

Google and X did not respond to requests for comment.

In an emailed response, Meta said researchers in South Africa could use the Meta Content Library, which gives access to Facebook and Instagram's archives and is hosted by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the University of Michigan.

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The access, functionality and interface of the Library have been critiqued by dozens of digital rights groups.

TikTok said there were future plans to roll out equal Application Programming Interface (API) access to all geographies even though it is currently only available in parts of Europe and the United States. A timeline was not yet clear. 

European laws, along with cheaper media monitoring tools and partnerships with U.S. universities, make it easier for researchers to access platform data in the Global North than in the Global South, Bird said.

The dozen digital rights and research groups signed the statement pre-election.

But this post-election period, when voters may have "their guards down", is just as critical, said Afia Asantewaa Asare-Kyei of the philanthropic Open Society Foundations-Africa. 

Meta's Oversight Board, of which Asare-Kyei is a member, TikTok's Election Centre and Google's fact-checking coalition are all working to tackle election disinformation. 

The signatories say access to a platform's APIs would allow for "realtime collection of data at the source" to better tackle disinformation and hate speech across the continent, and in South Africa specifically.

"We need meaningful access to the systems and information, and critically, we need access to our own data," Bird told Context in an online interview.

Women watch the election results on TV in Soweto's township, South Africa, June 1, 2024. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Women watch the election results on TV in Soweto's township, South Africa, June 1, 2024. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Women watch the election results on TV in Soweto's township, South Africa, June 1, 2024. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Post-election tension

South Africa's May election saw the African National Congress (ANC) party lose its majority voting base for the first time since the end of apartheid rule three decades earlier. 

On Friday, public broadcaster SABC reported that the ANC had agreed to form a government of national unity with three other parties, including the pro-business Democratic Alliance. 

Asare-Kyei cited riots that broke out in Kenya, Brazil and the United States after election results were challenged online, and said South Africa could not rule out the same if hate speech and disinformation were not properly controlled.

In 2021, riots and looting rocked the country's KwaZulu-Natal province when former president Jacob Zuma was arrested and jailed for refusing to appear at a corruption inquiry.

His supporters took to the streets to demand his release and this evolved into widespread looting and violence that claimed more than 300 lives and caused billions of rands worth of damage.

"The period after the votes ... is critical. That is where the most harmful, toxic, and potentially violent-inducing pieces of content get spread," said Asare-Kyei.

Meta's Oversight Board, comprised of 22 people spanning areas from law to activism, acts as an "appeal mechanism", sifting through millions of complaints about potentially harmful content to ensure Meta complies with human rights standards.

But the board cannot act alone, said Asare-Kyei, who endorsed researchers' call for better access to platform APIs.

"It's essential. Data is key, it is a human right," she said. 

Yet Scott Timcke - of digital policy think tank Research ICT Africa - warned against seeing data as a silver bullet.

"The vast majority of politics in South Africa doesn't occur on platforms ... you still need to be attentive to newspapers, TV and radio," said Timcke, a senior researcher.  

The root of mis- and disinformation taps into widespread voter "alienation" and access to data should walk hand-in-hand with a broader social fight against inequality, he said.

Dignity and equality

At a pre-election workshop for groups attempting to monitor South African election hate speech and disinformation, the researchers could not attempt a "deep dive" as data access was limited, costly and labour- intensive, wrote Guy Berger, a media professor at Rhodes University.

Organisations are now using the law to try and win more information from social media giants.

The Campaign for Free Expression (CFE), a free speech non-profit, wrote to the platforms in February asking them in detail how they planned to guard against disinformation during the election.

After being met with silence, CFE issued formal access to information notices, demanding detailed documentation.

All platforms said they were not covered by local laws and the data was anyway not in the country. CFE said they shared "generic" and "inadequate" information, spurring the non-profit to request an intervention from the country's Information Regulator.

CFE is still waiting on their response. 

And Bird said digital researchers would not make do with dodgy data when the Global North had top-notch access.

"It's like saying we gonna sell you this excellent car ... but in North America, it comes with an airbag and a GPS, but down here you don't even have a seatbelt, and we don't fit it as standard unless you come and force us to," said Bird.

"We need dignity and equality just like everybody else."

(Reporting by Kim Harrisberg; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths.)

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