Warning over disinformation campaigns in South Africa

 ·21 Mar 2024

The Africa Centre for Strategic Studies has warned that disinformation campaigns on the continent have surged nearly fourfold over the last two years, with South Africa not immune to undue cross-border influences.

2024 is a jam-packed year on the continent, with 19 African nations holding presidential or general elections – however, there has been an increase in both internal and external actors attempting to influence the outcomes by manipulating the narrative and pushing certain agendas.

“One of the most pressing problems related to Africa’s [and the world’s] digital transformation is the enhanced vulnerability to misinformation and disinformation, the latter referring to the spread of false information with the intent to deceive,” said Dan Sanaren from the JASON Institute for Peace and Security Studies.

Across Africa, digital campaigning is set to significantly influence the upcoming elections.

While the digital realm offers a platform for voters to learn about different political parties and candidates’ policies and goals, it also presents a substantial risk of disinformation or the deliberate manipulation of facts.

According to research by the US-backed Africa Center For Strategic Studies (ACSS), “disinformation campaigns seeking to manipulate African information systems have surged nearly fourfold since 2022, triggering destabilising and anti-democratic consequences.”

Deputy chief editor at Africa Check, Cayley Clifford, described disinformation campaigns as coordinated efforts by people, groups or entities to create a specific agenda, deliberately seeking to reach as wide an audience as possible.

They exploit vulnerabilities prevalent within a particular society, such as sensitivities to do with race, class, and gender, looking to evoke heightened emotions out of audiences. They do this through various methods, one common approach being the use of automated social media profiles, or bots, to disseminate this false information.

ACSS has said that it has documented 189 disinformation campaigns across Africa. “Given the opaque nature of disinformation, this figure is surely an undercount.”

It is important to note that the statistics provided by ACSS mostly exclude the influence of dis and misinformation from the West. Instead, it is focused on evidence of such activities coming mainly from Russia, China, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, and Qatar.

“These campaigns are coordinated by actors all across the world trying to exert their influence, not just a handful,” although proven data shows that certain actors have been far more evident than others, explained Clifford.

Regardless, the number of disinformation campaigns recorded by the ACSS across Africa are:

  • 23 trans-African;
  • 15 North African;
  • 72 West African;
  • 33 East African;
  • 21 Central African;
  • 25 Southern African.

According to the ACSS, every region of the continent has been targeted by disinformation campaigns, with a minimum of 39 individual African countries targeted for a specific disinformation campaign.

“Foreign actors have been continuously exploiting new digital opportunities to reach the general public in African nations and exert influence,” explained Sanaren.

The ACSS said that nearly 60% of the identified disinformation campaigns on the continent are foreign state-sponsored. “Russia continues to be the primary purveyor of disinformation in Africa, sponsoring 80 documented campaigns, targeting more than 22 countries,” it said.

What has also been on the rise across Africa is the increase in mercenary disinformation operation teams/contractors. For example, a private Israeli group, dubbed “Team Jorge,” has reportedly implemented disinformation campaigns to meddle in over 20 African elections since 2015.

Additionally, “domestic actors [across Africa] have increasingly integrated disinformation into their political playbooks, notably during Kenya’s 2022 and Nigeria’s 2023 election,” said the center.

South Africa

This year’s general elections are predicted to be the most hotly contested in South Africa’s 30-year democratic history.

“With the number of social media users in South Africa reaching about 26 million and continuing to grow, the potential for spreading misinformation is notably large,” said Karen Allen from the Institute For Security Studies (ISS).

Speaking about the culmination of mis- and disinformation actors, Allen said that “they ‘stir the pot’ online to achieve domestic political or geopolitical objectives – tapping into racial, economic and religious divisions or simply sowing confusion or fear on election day.”

Looking at specific foreign influences, the ACSS said that “Russia has been the primary [foreign] disinformation actor in South Africa.”

“In addition to pushing narratives intended to polarize communities, fan distrust, and bolster the African National Congress, Russia has used influential South Africans to promote pro-Russian narratives within South Africa and abroad,” said the ACSS.

Describing how this could have become a reality, Allen said that “the creation of echo chambers by influence merchants creates the ‘false impression of being informed’ – with many traditional media houses putting content behind paywalls, citizens may turn to social media for their news, which in many instances is unverified.”

What to do going forward

Instances of disinformation are predominantly sensational – looking to evoke strong emotions from audiences.

Clifford said that information does not need to be shared instantaneously – question the contents and source of the information. Africa Check has said that it is critical to display “open-minded scepticism, instead of cynicism… it’s best to question – not dismiss – a claim until there’s reliable, verifiable evidence to back it up.”

Researcher at Africa Check, Keegan Leech has said that “if you are unsure about something, do not share it.”

Since much of disinformation capitalises on evoking strong feelings for an immediate response, “just pause, let your emotions sit for a while and figure out if the source of the information is credible,” said Clifford.

Additionally, everyone with access to the internet has some of the best research tools at their disposal. “Google is your best friend,” said Clifford.

Fact-checking sources like Africa Check and AFP South Africa Fact Check are useful sources verifying or debunking widely circulated information. Their websites contains fact sheets, reports and more.

Read: The massive ‘deep fake’ problem South Africa isn’t ready for

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