In recent years, there has been increasing concern about the ability of disinformation to influence the outcomes of elections and its potential threat to democracy. In 2024, approximately 74 different elections are happening around the world, with 21 elections being held in Africa. As these countries face an evolving threat, fact-checking and media-monitoring groups are finding ways to mitigate this harm.
“The danger of disinformation and election is that when you are dealing with such an already volatile tense environment during an election period, such as in South Africa, you have a voting public who are sitting on the fence about whether they should vote or not, not understanding the voting politics, the dynamics and the electoral process,” said Thandi Smith, Media Monitoring Africa’s head of programmes during a panel discussion on misinformation versus disinformation in Africa at the recent Jamfest conference under the theme #AfricaFlows.
Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) was established in 1993 and acts as a watchdog, taking on a role to promote ethical and fair journalism that supports human rights. They promote democracy and a culture where the media and the powerful respect human rights to encourage a just and fair society. MMA uses technology, social media, and data tools to conduct successful media strategies for change, making their work more efficient and impactful. MMA’s vision is to develop a free, fair, ethical, and critical media culture in South Africa, and across the African continent.
Smith was joined by Carina van Wyk, head of education and training at Africa Check, Jibi Mering Moses, associate editor at 211 Check. and Pheladi Sethusa, lecturer at the Wits Centre for Journalism who moderated the panel. Disinformation is false or misleading information that is spread to cause harm while misinformation is defined as unintentionally sharing misleading or false information
“Our goal is to reduce the spread of false information and to provide the public with accurate information so they can make well-informed decisions, especially now in the lead-up to the elections,” said Van Wyk. Africa Check, the continent’s first independent non-profit fact-checking organisation, was established in South Africa in 2012. The fact-checking organisation identifies important public statements, interrogates the best available evidence and publishes fact-checking reports to guide public debate. The fact-checking group debunks false information, including that which is found on WhatsApp. Van Wyk said during an election period or other major events such as Covid or xenophobic attacks, there is an increase in fake or altered videos, images and information. Since 2015, Africa Check has trained 10,000 people in fact-checking verification.
211 Check, is South Sudan’s first and only independent fact-checking and information verification flagship project established in March 2020 to counter Covid-19 dis/misinformation. Since then, the initiative has continued to grow in its scope of work. Moses said that the conflict in South Sudan is a result of ethnic division and that when information is shared online, people are sceptical because of the conflict. He said as a small fact-checking organisation, that is tasked with fact-checking information for a country with a population of over 10 million people, it is challenging and the ethnic division aggravates the mistrust in the country. 211 Check provides training on fact-checking and has introduced a fact-check-for-pay programme that encourages citizens to fact-check information, which instils a culture of fact-checking in the country.
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How to spot misinformation and disinformation?
AI-generated false information has become more sophisticated and made it difficult for people to spot mis/disinformation. However, Van Wyk said: “It hasn’t become a very big problem in Africa yet, but we do expect as technology improves that we will be seeing some serious deep fakes”.
A few questions to ask yourself when you come across information on the internet or social media:
- If it sounds too good, shocking or unlikely to be true, question it, pause and make sure that you verify the information before you share it.
- If it triggers your emotions, if it makes you angry, or scared, or if it gives you hope, then pause and reflect, verify before, before you share it.
- If information is shared or spread, go look at credible news sources to verify the information.
- As yourself, who is the source of the information?
- With AI-generated images, look at the details such as fingers, ears, backgrounds and patterns.
Smith warned, “Don’t believe almost anything that you read on the internet, it is difficult to say because I believe that we still enjoy a vibrant news media and information-sharing community, you should be able to trust in news entities. But on social media, and with high consumption of information, always be sceptical of that information”. She explained the importance of media literacy, “we need to understand that news media as much as we have this utopian idea that everyone must be objective without bias and be completely independent, everyone has some kind of subjective angle on any kind of information that gets produced and it’s about the transparency and accountability of that information”.
She said that a good standard credible news article will lay out basic facts, will have multiple different sources from different angles on an issue and go a step further in unpacking context and depth whereas a mis/disinformation ‘news article’ will less likely have those similar elements and qualities. Smith suggested a need for digital media literacy programmes for children in primary schools and that the ability to discern information is a life skill that everyone needs. Smith added that it is the responsibility of organisations such as MMA to train people on fact-checking. MMA has various programmes it runs and offers such as the Spotters Network Programme, which aims to curb digital offences and ultimately create an online space that is free from hate speech, harassment and incitement, whilst simultaneously promoting truthful and accurate/credible news. Moses emphasised the importance of fact-checking organisations and encouraged people to reach out to experts who can help verify or fact-check information that is shared on social media platforms.
Mistrust in the media and the responsibility of those with influence
“People with influence have a responsibility to ensure that the content that they share is credible, accurate, and can be trusted,” said Smith. She explained that “politicians share content on social media that is xenophobic, borderline hate speech and incitements and are very savvy in what lines can get pushed, where it doesn’t constitute direct hate speech, but it is harmful content”. Smith said the more transparency and accountability, the easier it is to build trust. She acknowledged that though news media “do not always get it right”, there is a difference between news media and false information from social media accounts, in that news media has accountability mechanisms where audiences can report them to and get them to be held accountable.
Moses emphasised the importance of media literacy and teaching people how to identify mis/disinformation but said that the responsibility of media literacy should not be left to fact-checkers but other groups and organisations with capacity should be involved to empower people. He said that the spread of mis/disinformation is based on intent. People have different intentions for spreading false information, with some doing it for money. For example, a person may spread false information about a health-related incident or a disease to sell or promote their own medicine. Moses said that intention varies from economic, and political to social gain and noted the increase of disinformation during an election period, where politicians spread information to de-campaign their opponents. “Governments will invest heavily in social media platforms, for the information to reach a wide audience,” said Moses. He explained that when people see information over and over again, they begin to believe it.
Van Wyk acknowledged that “journalism is under a lot of pressure and is dealing with various challenges such as the juniorisation of newsrooms, shrinking newsrooms. and we are working under high-pressure circumstances. But it is more important, and I encourage journalists to focus on being right [rather] than being first. When we were moving from the traditional media to the online space, there was this huge competition to always be first and there seems to be a shift in journalists moving from being first to right, although I could be optimistic”.
Sethusa questioned how journalists or fact-checking organisations can respond to social media users who are monetising a response or a reaction, purposely sharing false information to trend or make money, particularly on X (formerly Twitter), and what the personal responsibility is for social media users.
“We want people to understand how to use social media, and if you are on social media, you should be able to understand and learn the tools to engage responsibly on these platforms,” said Smith.