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Understanding the fake news about South Africa’s elections

Shelley Liu shares the latest on disinformation and misinformation in the lead-up to the 2024 elections.

- May 27, 2024
South African flag with phone and WhatsApp logo

Today in our series on the 2024 South African elections is an interview with expert Shelley Liu, an assistant professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and the author of Governing After War: Rebel Victories and Post-war Statebuilding (Oxford University Press, 2024). In this interview we talk about disinformation and misinformation in South African politics and how it could affect the election. 

Kim Yi Dionne: You’re part of a team that has done research on misinformation in South African politics. Can you start by sharing how people access information about the elections and what misinformation looks like in South African politics?

Shelley Liu: Misinformation and disinformation on social media is a major concern across the globe, and South Africa is no exception. By misinformation, I’m referring to information that is false. By disinformation, we’re talking about false information that is additionally intended to mislead audiences. Thus, both refer to fake news – but it is disinformation during elections that is most concerning. 

In South Africa, access to social media apps such as WhatsApp or Facebook are much more affordable than traditional data packages. These apps are widely used across the country. An estimated 96% of South Africans are on WhatsApp, for example, and the app is a convenient one-stop shop for everything from social activities to work, school, banking, and news. It is quite common to keep up to date with news and current events through mobile phones and social media platforms, where people are receiving information from WhatsApp channels, large groups, broadcast lists, and also in conversations with friends and family.

During elections, disinformation’s effects may be magnified: More people are sending and receiving more political information on social media, polarization may increase the effectiveness of disinformation, and disinformation supply from both domestic and external actors may increase. 

There is strong evidence, for example, that at least some disinformation is coming in from pro-Russian social media accounts seeking to enhance support for specific parties.

The Electoral Commission of South Africa has sought to get ahead of disinformation through a partnership with major social media platforms. Unfortunately, especially on social media platforms such as WhatsApp, it’s really difficult to clamp down on misinformation and disinformation. Platforms like X (formerly Twitter) or Facebook have been able to implement some measures like community notes or user reporting. Because these platforms are feed-based, the broader set of users engages with posts and tweets. On the other hand, WhatsApp is a closed platform, which means that people’s messages to each other in private chats are encrypted and thus not viewable by the company and by others. 

In essence, misinformation flows across these personal and group chats, without metadata on viewing or engagement. This makes it very difficult to track the flow of misinformation across social networks and therefore to implement any sort of mechanism to warn users against misinformation. Ultimately, this effectively requires people to engage in their own fact-checking. This extra step – and added data costs for using the internet – can be a major barrier when people share disinformation as screenshots, videos, or GIFs from unnamed sources that are really difficult to trace. 

Political disinformation in South Africa tends to touch upon very salient issues such as race and immigration – all issues intending to stoke discord, anger, and fear among recipients. During the election season this has ramped up to include falsehoods about voting rules, migrants illegally registering to vote, endorsements from external figures such as Donald Trump, etc. 

In some cases we’ve seen information intended to mislead voters perpetuated by the candidates themselves, which adds to the confusion. I want to emphasize that a lot of this isn’t new, or the posts are often just iterations of existing disinformation: some of this activity is steadily pervasive, and other information has resurfaced from previous election cycles. But the recurring nature can add to their credibility.

Does misinformation have the potential to shift the election outcome in South Africa? 

It’s tough to say whether misinformation and disinformation can change election outcomes. I don’t think we have a good sense of how people are going to shift behaviors as elections draw closer based on what they’re hearing and receiving in person and online. However, disinformation threatens to deteriorate the democratic process and political discourse in the country by sowing mistrust and doubt on electoral outcomes. And disinformation may potentially encourage violence, which we saw in the July 2021 riots

For example, there has been disinformation circulating that people who don’t vote will have their ballots automatically counted towards the ruling party ANC. This is obviously untrue, but would severely harm trust in the democratic process if people believe the lie. There has also been increased discourse online by accounts favoring the upstart party uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) that aim to discredit the Electoral Commission. Making sure the government, parties, and civil society organizations come together during the post-election period will be important, regardless of the election’s outcomes.

What efforts can combat misinformation in South Africa? If someone isn’t sure about information they’ve heard or read about the election, is there a resource you’d recommend for fact-checking?

There are major efforts to combat misinformation and disinformation in the country. A few really great resources are Africa Check, the Daily Maverick, and Media Monitoring Africa. Africa Check and the Daily Maverick do a terrific job explaining the different parties’ platforms – including what’s been misleading out there about these political parties and their leaders, as well as fact-checking parties’ misleading claims about their own performance. 

To fact-check specific claims, here are some resources:

  • Media Monitoring Africa is an important resource, specifically on election-related topics. The Real411 – set up in partnership with the Electoral Commission of South Africa – is a platform where people can submit misinformation complaints and learn more about the misinformation circulating online. 
  • Media Monitoring Africa’s URL search tool is another great tool. People can paste in URLs to check if a site is a trusted source of information. 
  • Africa Check, a nonpartisan fact-checking organization that started in South Africa, can help investigate election-related as well as other claims. People can submit a fact-checking request and tap into these resources. 
  • Africa Check also engages in training journalists and producing media literacy lessons for teachers to use in the classroom. The organization is dedicated to combating misinformation across the continent and now runs offices in several countries. It’s an important organization to watch and follow in multiple contexts!