Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: A historic partnership ahead of the municipal elections

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The Independent Electoral Commission and Media Monitoring Africa have joined hands with major social media platforms to fight the spread of disinformation in the 1 November municipal elections.

Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: A historic partnership ahead of the municipal elections
© Copyright (c) Daily Maverick , All Rights Reserved

Week 35: The significance of partnerships

Last week the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) released a press statement that focused on the announcement of a historic coming together of the IEC, civil society and the major social media platforms. What makes it so important and why should you care? This week we unpack a South African and African first.

With a tendency for fighting and conflict to be the subject of most headlines, it’s easy to forget the value of celebrating entities working together.

“The Electoral Commission and Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) have joined hands with major social media platforms to fight the spread of disinformation, in the run-up to, during and beyond the November 1, 2021 municipal elections.

“The Commission and MMA, who in 2019 launched a joint action to deal with disinformation, have today — 19 October 2021 — reached an agreement with Google, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok to work in support of our efforts to end the scourge of disinformation.”

You may wonder what the big deal is. There are a number of aspects that make this important. First, the IEC, like several other electoral management bodies globally, understands the threat posed to elections by disinformation. The IEC delivered a world first in 2019 when we worked with them to introduce the Real411 platform. Now, in 2021, the step of bringing the big social media platforms together for a coordinated response takes the fight to the next level.

Suggesting that the social media platforms, the IEC and civil society all work together is perfectly logical, but it is easier said than done, which leads to the second reason the announcement is significant. 

Google (market cap: $1.84-trillion), Facebook (market cap: $915-billion), TikTok (market cap: $250-billion), and Twitter (market cap: $49-billion) are all multibillion-dollar entities; they are global, increasingly pervasive and have great power. 

As we saw in the US elections in 2016 and in 2020, and elsewhere, these platforms are able to affect election outcomes and are frequently abused to spread hatred, incite violence and spread misinformation and disinformation. There is extensive work being done around the world on whether each of them is doing enough to combat digital harms like disinformation.  

Facebook is currently in the news because of whistle-blowers, suggesting it hasn’t been doing nearly enough. The pressure on each of these social media platforms to do more will continue, and Media Monitoring Africa will be among those working to ensure more effective and appropriate steps are taken. We must, however, also accept that like any major source of power, changing these platforms is difficult.

As major power brokers in society, each of the platforms is subjected to mountains of complaints, queries, demands, lobbying, threats and enticements. The bigger the market and power of the entity the more likely it is to listen. Many, for example, have appeared before special tribunals and congressional hearings in the US and before the EU. 

In our context, when the platforms were invited to appear before the Parliamentary Committee on Communication and Digital Technologies in May, only Google appeared. All had been, and we understand continue to be, willing to engage with the government. South Africa’s internet access is increasing and estimates place access at 64% of our population, or about 38 million people. The most popular platform is Facebook with about 27 million users in South Africa. It sounds like a lot until you consider that Facebook has about 2.85 billion monthly users worldwide. So we account for less than 1% of users, against 221.6 million users in the US (7.8%).  

There is no doubt that all the social media platforms are aware of the huge growth coming from Africa and are paying increasingly more attention to our issues, but it is also clear that South Africa is punching above its weight in terms of engagement with social media platforms.

In addition, we need to consider that while most of the social media platforms have local staff, many of whom have worked in government, civil society or other related sectors, the platforms themselves are headquartered in different parts of the world. This means getting messages and information up through the chain to the key decision-makers requires enormous effort and determination from in-country people.

It is in this context then that the IEC and Real411 have brought four of the biggest social media platforms together to commit to combating disinformation over the election period. It demonstrates huge commitments from the local platform representatives.

The third reason the announcement is so important relates to the platforms themselves. As we have reflected several pieces previously, one of the biggest challenges we face is that the platforms all have different views and understandings of what they consider to be misinformation and disinformation. This is one of the key reasons Real411 was developed to begin with, as not only are these views all different, but they don’t speak to South African laws, our Constitution and our democracy.

Getting them to agree with hearing what the IEC and Real411 are saying and agreeing to act expeditiously is no small achievement. While the platforms are not assessing misdemeanours on the same basis as we are, their support of the process and recognition of the importance of the IEC is a huge step for recognition of the importance not just of South Africa’s elections, but for electoral bodies more broadly.

What are the key elements of the Framework of Cooperation that the platforms have all agreed to support?

“1.1. The purpose of the Framework of Cooperation is to identify the measures that the Participants may put in place to address the challenges related to disinformation during the election period; to promote conditions that are conducive to free, fair and credible elections; and to assist the IEC in its mandate to address intentionally false statements as set out in section 89(2) of the Electoral Act and section 69(2) of the Local Government: Municipal Electoral Act.” (LGE Framework of Cooperation)

In addition to identifying measures and seeking to promote conditions conducive to free, fair and credible elections, and to assist the IEC in combating disinformation, the framework sees the participants committing to take steps towards the following:

“2.1.1. Deploy appropriate policies, processes, and safeguards to facilitate access to accurate information regarding electoral matters.

2.1.2. Implement and promote appropriate policies, processes, and safeguards to address disinformation.

2.1.3. Voluntarily undertake information, education, and communication campaigns to build awareness around the 2021 Local Government Elections in South Africa.

2.1.4. Voluntarily undertake information, education, and communication campaigns to build awareness around the harms, risks, and consequences of the dissemination of disinformation in the context of elections.

2.1.5. Endeavour to collaborate and impart training on various products, services, mechanisms, and processes for responding to concerns of disinformation.” (LGE Framework of Cooperation) 

The framework then sees the participants committing to support and work with the IEC and Real411. In addition to Real411, the social media platforms have appointed persons or teams during the election period to prioritise referrals from the commission. Actions taken by the platforms are in terms of their policies and may include the removal of the content, the publication of an advisory warning and/or the delisting of the post.

Finally: “With regard to advertising content by contestants, PADRE [software] will enable all stakeholders to make use of this transparent repository of political advertisements. All political advertisements, including those targeted at individuals or specific groups using online media, should also be available through the repository. The purpose of the repository is to increase transparency and to enable the verification of the authenticity of any political advertisement.”

The framework has gaps, and there is no enforcement mechanism or punishment if the platforms don’t adhere to it, but it is a framework of cooperation, not a binding code. There are also other areas it might address and we will welcome greater commitment, but as a first version, the framework represents a significant shift towards recognising the importance of human rights and free, fair and credible elections and democracy in an African context. It also represents the beginning of building deep and meaningful commitment to combating disinformation by all the participants.

With all the challenges we face, the framework is a really important good news achievement. Now it’s up to the public to do its bit. We know that we cannot remove every piece of disinformation, but the more we expose it, the more platforms act and take down content that is in breach of their own community guidelines, the greater the awareness and the more difficult it is for those who seek to spread disinformation.

We need people to keep on standing up and reporting those who seek to exploit fears. It won’t stop disinformation, but it may reduce its spread and cause less harm. It is critical that we all play our part in combating and mitigating digital offences.

If you suspect that content could be disinformation, hate speech, harassment of journalists or incitement to violence, there is something you can do about it.

To make it even more simple, download the Real411 mobile app. Again, we take this chance to remind you: 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 do in your area, ask them to issue one public statement that highlights and condemns any attacks on our journalists and then to demonstrate what action they took to help combat that. If they are edgy or push some other hogwash agenda, don’t easily vote for them because they don’t believe in democracy. DM

William Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) and Nomshado Lubisi is communications manager at MMA, a partner in the 411 platform to counter disinformation.

Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: A historic partnership ahead of the municipal elections
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