The Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) says it has received more than 70 complaints relating to digital disinformation, a month after launching a pilot project aimed at combating digital disinformation via their online reporting platform.
Earlier this month, the IEC and Media Monitoring Africa launched the Real411.org.za website to deal with complaints about language that incites violence, discrimination and the publication of false and defamatory allegations about parties during the lead up to Wednesday’s general elections.
Janet Love, vice-chairperson of the IEC, in a statement on Monday, said the complaints received had highlighted the challenges of combating disinformation. She added that there was a continuing need for education regarding what constitutes disinformation.
“At the time the number [of] complaints and interactions demonstrate that South Africans are taking the time to engage with political messages and reporting in digital media.”
According to the IEC, of the 70 complaints, 34 have been finalised and the remainder are being processed. To date, none of the complaints have been found to be instances of deliberate disinformation, it added.
The complaints however, bring to the fore the difficulties in articulating a comprehensive characterisation of what digital disinformation is.
An analysis by the Director of Media Monitoring Africa, William Bird, states that “the advent of social media, as with many societal changes brings both significant opportunities and new threats. Social media enables almost anyone with a device to create and share content, enables more direct and engaged conversations and it enables media to reach their audiences where they are.”
“At the same time, social media has also facilitated the spread of disinformation. While not a new phenomenon, the concept of ‘fake news’ has been popularised by President Trump, largely as a means to critique and undermine media credibility.”
Bird continued that as media had become “harder to control, mis- and disinformation campaigns have become more central, not just as a means to deliberately disinform and undermine democratic processes (as witnessed in the US, Brazilian, and Zimbabwean elections), but also as a modern form of censorship.”
According to the IEC, several of the complaints received referred to news articles or opinion pieces on news media websites. Others, while not labelled as disinformation, were related to the tone and content of messages by the contesting political parties which have the ability to cause offence and/or undue political tension and rivalry.
Another area of concern is dealing with perceived digital disinformation related to the nuances of political satire, the commission said.
“Satire has an important role to play in political commentary and the Electoral Commission is committed to ensuring that free speech is not undermined in this disinformation initiative.”
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