Election periods often bring with them a surge in mis- and disinformation shared online. As South Africans prepare to head to the polls on May 29, here are some tips for journalists and fact-checkers on how to fight back.

We spoke to Carina van Wyk, Head of Education and Training at Africa Check, and Nomshado Lubisi-Nkosinkulu, Communications Officer at Media Monitoring Africa, about how journalists can tackle mis- and disinformation leading up to an election period. Media Monitoring Africa has an online platform called Real411 where the public can report mis-disinformation, harassment, hate speech and incitement.

Lubisi-Nkosinkulu says it is important to equip journalists with an understanding of what mis-disinformation is, and the skills to fight it. “Mis-disinformation comes in different forms, formats, and intersections,” she says. This includes incitement, hate speech, and harassment. Each of those elements in most cases has an element of mis-disinformation.

Journalists play an important educational role in ensuring that their audiences make sense of the information. Nomshado says it is important to consider the full picture, online and offline in the narrative. “Look at the image or video in context, compare the sources across various platforms, as these narratives take different shapes and forms across platforms.”

“The basic principles of journalism still apply – always question the information at hand, critically engage with all information you come across and most importantly, never share information with your audience if you have not verified it,” says Van Wyk. “This will help audiences sort fact from fiction.”

Van Wyk says that mis- and disinformation is often shared by politicians during their speeches at rallies, which are often widely reported on. She urges journalists to not simply quote what is said verbatim at these rallies. “Ask where they find the statistics. Speak to experts in that field and ensure they have the correct information,” she says. “Experts will help ensure data is interpreted correctly.”

In tackling mis-disinformation in the field, Lubisi-Nkosinkulu says journalists need to move away from event-based reporting and provide contextualised reporting, which gives both a historical and current perspective.

“People need to understand how the manifestos will be implemented post-elections and what this will look like. Journalists need to provide their audiences with a full picture from beginning to end, and to help their audience identify whether the information they are engaging is credible or not,” she says.

One of the biggest challenges faced by Africa Check and Media Monitoring Africa in tackling mis-disinformation is authentic images and videos shared out of context. This is mostly shared on social media platforms by users.

“If it triggers your emotions, it could trigger the emotions of your audience. It’s important to pause and verify. It also helps to speak to other colleagues and credible accounts online to check whether they have come across that post,” says Van Wyk.

She says if you fail to verify the source of the information, it is better not to share it.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has been a visible threat in the spread of mis-disinformation in different media platforms. Van Wyk says even though AI tools have become extremely sophisticated, these tools still struggle with details in both image and video generation.

“Journalists need to look at ears, eyes and fingers in the image or video,  jewellery at times seems to be melting; frames and patterns; look at the background. Does the person look unnaturally smooth? Journalists also need to examine movement. Often in videos, the lip movements are not in sync with what they are saying. AI videos mostly have the lips moving but the body is not,” she advises.

Lubisi-Nkosinkulu says journalists should use tools such as Google Image Reverse search to ensure that the picture is in context with what is being reported. She says journalists should also inspect the background of these images and videos.

“Often these images or videos are altered to a South African context, but they were created in another country. Examine the quality of the image and video, first-hand glances often help.”

She says journalists should also be mindful of AI created videos where a person in the video attended a particular event, but their speech in the video has been altered to say something else.

Africa Check has a podcast called What’s Crap on WhatsApp, which is also a group on the platform where fact checking tips, warnings about false information doing the rounds and podcast episodes with all information which has been debunked in recent weeks are shared with group members. Journalists can add the number +27(0) 82 709 3527 as a contact and request to be included in the group.

Africa Check have formed an election coalition with various media outlets to ensure that journalists have reports on all manifesto fact checks, while Real411 has partnered with the independent electoral commission to create a back-end dashboard that journalists can access to tackle election mis-disinformation.



Real411 Election Mis-Information Dashboard: https://www.real411.org/

Africa Check’s South African election information hub: https://africacheck.org/south-africa-election-information-hub

Africa Check’s guide on spotting AI-generated visuals: https://africacheck.org/fact-checks/guides/guide-africa-checks-tips-spotting-ai-generated-images-and-videos

Africa Check’s Podcast: What’s Crap on WhatsApp?

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