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South Africa’s pivotal 2024 election: Maintaining democratic processes and trust amid digital challenges 30 years since the fall of apartheid

Published on
24 May 2024
Written by
Dylan Thurgood, Katinka de Wet, Herkulaas Combrink, Seani Rananga and Vukosi Marivate
South Africa is approaching a watershed election on May 29th, 2024.
Person waving South African flag

South Africa is approaching a watershed election on May 29th, 2024, where polls indicate that the African National Congress (ANC), the post-apartheid victor and liberation party, might obtain less than 50% of the vote for the first time since 1994 (Social Research Foundation, 2024). The waning in support for the ANC significantly raises the stakes for the upcoming elections. This can be witnessed by intense inter- and intra-party fighting, at its most severe including political assassinations. Vote-seeking campaigns deploy increasingly populist rhetoric, and recent policy announcements were seemingly made by the ANC primarily to keep a grip on power (SABC News, 2024). The signing of a brand-new National Health Insurance Bill on 15 May 2024 is indicative of such a carefully timed tactic, as it was announced despite widespread outcries as to the unpreparedness of the health system as well as the budget for such a rollout (BBC, 2024).

The introduction of a range of new political rivals ushers in a new era of South African politics. This changing and increasingly fragmented electoral landscape combines cautious excitement brought about by potential multiparty accountability with accompanying anxiety over potential disastrous coalition arrangements in the election’s aftermath. There is concern that internal political strife might take centre-stage, neglecting much-needed service delivery. While there are high levels of confidence in the actual management of the electoral process by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), the South African electoral management board, the general drop in trust in democracy and public institutions witnessed (Kotzé, 2023) will likely affect voter behaviour with seventy political parties and eleven independent candidates competing for votes.

South Africa is experiencing declining voter turnout, with 2019 marking the first time since the advent of democracy that less than half (49%) of eligible voters cast their vote, an eight-percentage point decrease from the 2014 election. This trend is especially concerning among young citizens, who increasingly turn to social media to express their dissatisfaction about deficient service delivery and prevalent state corruption (Times Live, 2020). The latest statistics indicate that approximately 75% of South Africans have internet access and 43% of them use social media. While Facebook is the leading social media platform for accessing news, the platform used most in general by South Africans is WhatsApp and the country ranks among the highest globally for its use of TikTok (Newman et al., 2023). In addition, albeit in decline, traditional media such as print, and television remain important sources of news for segments of the population (Wasserman, 2020).

This article highlights the role mis- and disinformation play in the run-up to the South African elections and illustrates social media’s role in amplifying unrest. Then, possible civil society initiatives against online harms are highlighted, before discussing the challenges of content moderation in the context of South Africa’s many languages.

South Africa’s landscape of mis- and disinformation

In late 2016-2017, South Africans were alarmed to learn of a commissioned plot developed by the British multinational public relations, reputation management and marketing company, Bell Pottinger. One of Bell Pottinger’s founders, Lord Tim Bell, worked with Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party to win three UK general elections, coining the phrase “Labour isn’t working”. Fast-forward to 2016, Bell Pottinger began to work for the infamous “Gupta brothers”, Atul, Ajay and Tony Gupta, cronies of the previous president Jacob Zuma (president between 2009 and 2018 and ousted from the ANC in early 2024) and “state capturers” during Zuma’s presidency. They were tasked to forge a simplified narrative of economic inequality awareness among poor South Africans.

The campaign, encapsulated by the phrase “WhiteMonopolyCapitalism” was lavishly compensated by the Gupta brothers’ company, Oakbay Investments. Analysis of this campaign identified tactics including the manufacturing and fuelling of racial tensions by flooding all forms of media through Twitter bots, the creation of fake Twitter accounts, websites (WMC Leaks and WMC Scams), speeches, media outlets (ANN7) and a daily newspaper, The New Age. All these forms of media were focused on propagating racial tensions and legitimising the Guptas involvement in South African affairs. Through social media accounts with names such as @economycapture and hashtags like #RespectGuptas and #WhiteMonopolyCapitalism, the campaign generated around 220 000 tweets (Disinfo Africa, 2023; New York Times, 2018).

It is estimated that the “state capture” or the “Zupta” years costed the South African economy about R50 billion (more than GBP 2.5 billion) (Daily Maverick, 2021). While the causal link between media propaganda and the possibility of “state capture” is difficult to draw conclusively, disinformation is a serious concern in the country, with the Global Disinformation Index indicating that almost 30% of South African news sites exhibit major risks of disinformation. Election news in South Africa is particularly rife with tales surrounding the newly created uMkontho weSizwe (MK) party, led by former president Jacob Zuma and controversially named after the historic military wing of the ANC. However, intense infighting has been going on between the MK’s founder Jabulani Kumalo and the Constitutional Court recently stated that Zuma will not be allowed to run for a mandate because of a previous conviction (BBC, 2024).

A recent analysis by the Centre for Information Resilience found that several accounts on X praising Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have been seeking to rally support for Zuma’s new party, highlighting additional risks to electoral integrity from foreign interference (Bloomberg UK, 2024).  Furthermore, today’s AI technologies are making it easier to create and disseminate disinformation. Deepfakes, for example, can be used to create content to persuade voters or to simply sow confusion and erode trust in democratic institutions. A controversy erupted in March 2024 when Jacob Zuma’s daughter posted a deepfake video on X in which Donald Trump supposedly shared a message with South Africans, urging them to vote for Jacob Zuma so that “South Africans will matter” (Van Damme, 2024).

Another political party, the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), created in 2013 by the expelled former ANC Youth League president, Julius Malema, and now the second largest opposition party in South Africa, attempted to muster support in the upcoming elections by featuring the voice of Eminem in a post that was  declared false by Africa Check (Africa Check, 2024). Back in 2018, this party had already been accused of deliberately spreading alternative narratives and disinformation about various commissions that were investigating elaborate and high-level fraud and corruption cases in the public domain (Daily Maverick, 2018). Yet, while South Africa has experienced deepfakes in these instances, it seems unlikely at present that they could have a decisive influence in the election, considering that most deepfakes are still easily debunked and voters’ political views are not easily swayed (Politico, 2024), with the more likely scenario being that a few deepfakes of limited quality contribute to declining levels of trust in authentic news (Łabuz and Nehring, 2024).

The role of social media in amplifying political unrest

Evidence suggests that a significant amount of hate speech is disseminated through social media platforms in South Africa (Chenzi, 2021), causing political tensions. Recently, representatives of Jacob Zuma’s MK party made several inflammatory statements, including death threats to the current President, inciting riots and unrest, such as “clos[ing] South Africa for good” (Daily Maverick, 2024).  These utterances frame the sentiments and actions brought about by Zuma supporters during the 2021 riots following his arrest and incarceration. The 2024 report of an investigation by South Africa’s Human Rights Commission clearly underscores the important role that social media played to stir the ensuing violence which caused more than 5,000 arrests and 350 deaths (South African Human Rights Commission, 2024). Subsequent analysis of the report concluded:

“Social media platforms, whether open or closed, were utilised by individuals and specific groups to organise and aid in the spread of the unrest. These forums served to advance various agendas during the July unrest, including establishing collaborative networks, strategically spreading misinformation and disinformation, and mobilising and celebrating looting and violence” (Van Damme, 2024).

As mentioned above, the passing of the National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill by the ANC, a mere two weeks before the elections, has led to a proliferation of racist and xenophobic entries online, indicative of the manifold tensions currently dominating South African society.

 Fighting the mis- and disinformation affliction

Even before the buildup to the 2024 elections, several initiatives were launched to combat the spread of harmful online content with the amount and reach of such content gaining traction during the COVID-19 epidemic, where political leaders, party members and even members of the public voiced a variety of global, local, and “glocal” suspicions related to the epidemic and to its responses. In response to the challenges associated with mis- and disinformation, Real411, was established with the purpose to empower the citizenry with the means to combat digital dis- and misinformation (Real 411, 2024). With its cooperative ability of public reporting, this initiative not only raises awareness but also initiates action and safeguards the integrity of the upcoming elections. There have also been attempts to combat dangerous and false information spreading between the Information Regulator in South Africa and the IEC.

This engagement includes an agreement among a range of influential stakeholders, including Media Monitoring Africa as well as all Meta Platforms and TikTok (X is not involved). In 2023, the IEC clinched a “framework of cooperation” agreement with Google, TikTok, and Facebook, and has established an impartial three-member committee to evaluate reported cases of dubious information circulation on their platforms. Another initiative by Media Monitoring Africa is the creation of the Padre website, which acts as a fact-checking repository to be used by the public to view electoral campaign content of all political parties in one place (Tech Central, 2024). Moreover, recognising the harms caused by hate speech as well as mis- and disinformation in the July 2021 riots, the South African Human Rights Commission issued a Social Media Charter to provide guidelines for safe, informed, and empowered social media use and the ‘Principles and Guidelines for the Use of Digital and Social Media in Elections in Africa’ launched earlier this year by the Association of African Electoral Authorities (AAEA) are a further testament to the growing concern around disinformation and other online harms in upcoming African elections.

Local languages and Natural Language Processing

The ability to track, respond to, and pre-empt online activities related to possible violence and other serious consequences is made even more complicated given the fact that South Africa boasts twelve official languages. Of these official languages (not to mention the non-official ones), a lot are “low resource languages”, and large language models (LLM) do therefore not translate or create content adequately to convey meaning. Another dimension to the circulation of misleading and false information is that people do not necessarily communicate in one particular local language at a time but might use bi- or even tri- lingual statements within an online post.

To detect hate speech and false information in this context requires a unique approach and the appropriate training data for these models. The training data in question must contain a large enough corpus of the eleven spoken languages (the twelfth official language being South African Sign Language) to detect meaning and specific manifestations of dis- and misinformation and other variations of false news. Such a dataset needs to be annotated, correctly labelled, and the model to detect and classify these forms of information needs to be validated before it can be used within a specific platform. Thus, the number of resources and research to deploy such a model needs to match the task it is intended for, which is no mean feat.

During mass mobilisation events, like election periods, misinformation that originates and spreads among users of “low resource languages” about sensitive issues, such as access to resources (land, education, employment, health care) can be particularly harmful, as it may influence public opinion and public emotions erroneously. Elections and other significant public events could therefore increase the abuse of information as well as hate speech – in ways that remain largely undetected as laypeople themselves can knowingly or inadvertently reinforce these ideas through “shares” and “likes” on social media. Failure to address these online harms among all groupings in a heterogenous society such as South Africa could impact trust in public institutions and undermine efforts to promote the wellbeing, solidarity, and social cohesion of entire communities.

Conclusion

To combat false, misleading, and incendiary statements online that could have serious and violent real-life ramifications as we have seen in South Africa, requires the active participation of individuals, academics, governments, social media platforms, and electoral management bodies. This is needed to ensure the integrity of information and the preservation of democratic processes throughout society. South Africa, and other countries in the Global South are important geopolitical actors that could be manipulated or abused by greater world leaders and interest groups to attain even more global power and control. Exacerbating existing fractures within fragile countries through orchestrated social media campaigns, such as fuelling political and racial animosity and xenophobia in the South African context is continuously fought by both government and non-governmental entities, as shown by the initiatives existing in South Africa to claw back trust through action. Forms of grassroots opposition can help to hold to account the very political party and politicians that ushered in a new era in South Africa, also in the context of online harms.

 

References

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Authors

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Katinka de Wet

University of the Free State

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Herkulaas Combrink

University of the Free State

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Seani Rananga

University of Pretoria

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Prof Vukosi Marivate

University of Pretoria