Local issues, global challenges – Disinformation in the lead up to 2021 Local Government Elections

Posted on 15th Sep 2020

By Guy Berger, UNESCO director for strategies and policies in the field of communications and information.

Local issues, global challenges – Disinformation in the lead up to 2021 Local Government Elections

Here’s the problem:

As we have seen in COVID-19, disinformation – whether it starts with duplicitous and destructive intent, or whether it is just naïve circulation of falsehoods – can cause significant harm.

This prospect of disinformation harming elections is very real. And such a prospect goes against the African Union’s guidelines on access to information and elections in Africa[1], as well as even more fundamentally the universal human right to public participation in free and fair elections. This danger of disinformation is also well captured in the World Press Freedom Day declaration adopted in Addis Ababa in 2019, on “Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation”. [2]

Worldwide, disinformation is a massive and growing problem for the working of democracy. Instead of an informed electorate, there is the prospect of a disinformed electorate – and a distorted election process and result.

Having legal sanctions against the spreading of electoral disinformation, can in certain cases be justified as a legitimate limit on freedom expression, in the interests of protecting the right to vote.  Disinformation that incites violence against a poll results is a clear instance when restrictions are legitimate. The same with disinformation that messes with people’s knowledge about how and where to register and cast a vote. 

But other cases are more difficult, and the line between disinformation and information becomes blurred in the contestation of political narratives and the way facts are selected and linked by political actors for their different political purposes. Regulating these cases of content through legal means has the very high risk of curtailing democratic debates, in which there are often grey areas rather than clear truth and falsehood.

So, we need to recognise that in the interests of protecting an election, as important as law and regulation are in their particular roles, there is also a lot of disinformation that does not reach the threshold of legitimate legal limitation of expression. We should recognise as well that there is a difficulty in enforcing regulations in the virtual and transnational digital instant ecosystem. This means that we also have to look at responses to electoral disinformation beyond the regulatory realm. There is a lot else that can and must be done beyond regulation.

Here is the solution to disinformation threatening the 2021 local elections:

Solution 1: Be ahead of the game, like with this webinar. You have to anticipate various scenarios of electoral disinformation and possible impacts. Not least, you can expect conspiracy theories about candidates, and lies about political party infighting and scandals. You can expect disinformation about journalists and civil society exposing disinformation, and disinformation about official results and officials in charge of the election.  There will also be disinformation that brazenly brands verified and accurate information as “fake news” and disinformation… without any evidence but with impassioned and persuasive rhetoric which at minimum can create doubt and reduce trust. We need to know what kinds of responses can counter all this contamination of the electoral environment, and therefore how to protect election integrity in the face of disinformation. Let’s look at who is going to help or hinder the defence of democracy against disinformation. So solution 2 is to know and co-ordinate amongst the range of relevant actors.

Six groups of who: Regulators; civil society, media, social media, political actors, voters.

The regulators – IEC, ICASA and others (SAHRC, Data protection commissioner)

These bodies have statutory responsibilities and leadership roles that impact on securing elections, and each should play its full part, professionally and within their legal frameworks, in order to ensure that the rules are really respected. It is important that the regulators co-ordinate, among themselves, as well as with the relevant actors below. These other actors need to be well aware of what the regulators do, and society needs to have accurate expectations about the powers and duties involved.

Civil society:

To tackle the problem of disinformation, however, we need to know what it is and how to identify it, so that we don’t end up with legitimate information or the robust cut-and-thrust of political speech, being willfully – or mistakenly – misconstrued as part of the problem. To this end, one of the key issues is to have arrangements and capacity to monitor for identifying disinformation in the first place, as a foundation for how society will respond to the problem.

Worldwide, the identification of disinformation is being led by civil society, including academia; with media also playing a role, and both civil society groups and media are engaged in further investigation into the financing, techniques, origins and effects of disinformation. There is a need to harness fact-checkers and other capacities for programmatic election observation, which should include strong mechanisms to monitor disinformation and especially that disinformation which spreads below-the-radar such as on Whatsapp or closed Facebook groups. Civil society groups like MMA are key to enlisting public involvement in detecting electoral disinformation.

Media are your ally.

They are visibly in the public sphere, and if they are captured or corrupted so as to present disinformation, this can be readily seen and criticised.  At their best, media can counter-balance disinformation, with credible information and informed opinion and analysis. They can also dig into and uncover what’s happening beneath-the-radar. They therefore need to be protected from attack– and particularly by those disinformation agents with a vested interest in being able to dominate the public discourse without alternatives and without exposure. Everyone needs to speak out in support of respect for the work of media when there are attacks, and those who can, should make maximum information and other support available to the journalists. These are points that have been set out by the world’s special rapporteurs on free expression in a joint declaration in 2017, which is well worth reading.[3]

Media will play a critical part in helping to monitor who is financing the parties and the political campaigns, with – it seems – the 2018 Political Party Funding Act kicking in – for the first time in 2021. Media can also play a key part in monitoring the abuse of public office for electoral purpose.  Especially as there is likely to be a lot of disinformation about these issues of funding and incumbent authorities – both in the context of robust political contestation as well as in covert influence operations.  Media can also play a huge part in investigating advertising that uses political micro-targeting, which is intrinsically manipulative.

Social media can be your ally – but they are also your big risk.

This is the realm where false information really flourishes, often through orchestration and fake identities, and by exploiting the attention-seeking algorithms, recommendations and “trends” that are integral to most of the business models of social media and search providers.

You need to be monitoring this, and getting action to be taken. And for this, you need the Internet companies as serious partners. Unless they have their own monitoring systems, and unless they are responsive to issues you bring to them, it is hard to identify the ever-changing faces of disinformation and its tactics, scale of reach and spread, let alone have action be taken. However, the companies are particularly challenging. As a UNESCO World Trends Report special focus edition[4] points out:  while, with one hand the companies are taking limited actions against some types and occurrences of disinformation, with the other hand the very same companies’ business models are serving to polarise emotions and reward fabricated content. They make money, and the side-effect is that prospects of peaceful, transparent and fair election are damaged.

And, also significant, is that, aside from COVID-19, the companies have been slow to step forward worldwide with promoting credible information and fact-based decision-making during elections.  

Ideally, however, they need to brought to a position beyond fine words, where they really help ensure election credibility and integrity through co-regulatory arrangements that engage the range of relevant stakeholders.[5] Through this, the companies should develop a clear and transparent playbook about what kinds of content they will promote, like IEC content; and what kinds of content they will take action against. They need to elaborate on what type of actions against what kinds of content. These actions are multiple, and range from what will lead to the deletion of content and de-registration of accounts, through to content that is submitted to independent fact-checking, the application of labels to content, limiting the amount of forwarding possible, excluding content from automated recommendations, or deactivation of hyperlinks to other sites and exclusion from advertising.  

Currently, the willingness of these companies to spend money on the issues, and the opacity of their decision-making, are major hurdles to overcome. Yet, as the African Union’s guidelines affirm, “Every person has the right to access information of private bodies that may assist in the exercise or protection of any right expeditiously and inexpensively”. A starting point to engage the companies can be the development of a Code of Practice on Disinformation, like the European Commission developed with internet companies and advertisers in October 2018.

Political actors can be a risk, and yet they can be transformed to become your ally.

These actors, including the various local and foreign forces that want to shape the electoral outcomes, can go follow the temptation to go beyond debate and policy proposals and critiques of each other –and get into the business of deliberately false and misleading information. There are lots of PR companies, and even foreign governments, providing these kinds of supports. But they can be part of the solution. In Uruguay[6], political parties last year agreed a pact to refrain from disinformation; to avoid actions or expressions that use aggravating tones against adversaries; and to set up a consultation mechanism when threats or challenges arise to fulfilment of their agreement. The initiative also includes capacity building for journalists to cover disinformation, and a mechanism to detect disinformation campaigns and remove them from circulation. In Germany’s 2017 general election, all political parties committed to avoiding social media ‘bots’ and microtargeting.[7] South Africa had a code of conduct in the 1994 elections, about how parties would relate to the media. It could now be opportune to dust this off, and to expand its remit to the new digital and disinformation challenges.

The voters should be at the centre:

You may say, obviously – elections are about the rights of voters. But there is more to this.

First, you want to see an election to be about the voters’ issues, not about the flashy performance of personalities in the race; you want policy substance to prevail over entertainment spectacle and other diversions. The problem about disinformation, is that it artificially sets the agenda – it diverts attention to particular issues, and distracts focus away from other issues. This is often without people even knowing that they are being diverted to continuously respond to issues proposed by other actors, rather than taking charge of the public agenda themselves and asserting the need for electoral contestants to respond to their most pressing issues.

Second, you need to have voters be alert that dirty tricks are likely to be played, and there will be attempts to manipulate them including by persons unknown or using fake identities and hidden agendas.  They need to be supported to be aware – and therefore voter education needs go beyond narrow issues of the electoral system and to start embracing media and information literacy.  Through this, citizens can begin to question why they get certain content promoted and prominent on their internet services; and how to take a critical distance. They can learn skills like how to evaluate and assess content and compare it to other sources. They can acquire the wisdom to “think before they share”. They need, in short, to be empowered to be masters of their own voting decisions, which means becoming captains of the content they consume and circulate.

Third, one thing that disinformation seeks to do is to discourage some sectors from actually voting. This reinforces the false view that a vote makes little or no difference. Disinformation even sometimes goes further through providing false information about registering to vote, or where and when voting will take place. In the USA, this tactic is called “voter suppression”. South African voters and their parents were suppressed for centuries under white domination. That changed, but today, the tradition of active citizenship in South Africa is under threat, and disinformation can worsen it.  Thus, 88% of registered voters went to local government polls in 1999; in 2016 it was 58%.  More concerning, the voter registration rate in 2019 was about 75% of the total eligible according to the IEC, meaning that almost 10 million eligible voters were not registered. Of these, six million were under 30 years old in 2019. In other words, one in four people did not register to vote. Disinformation does not want a conscious active citizenry; it thrives if people are demobilised. As the UNESCO World Trends report noted earlier states: “A major risk is that disinformation contributes to societal distrust and apathy”. Potential voters need to be inspired with a message that they should help make history, not leave it for disinformation merchants to decide their futures. The message: to register to vote is to take a stand for truth.

So, in summary: to mitigate the dangers ahead, it is vital to get the defences ready against electoral disinformation.

  • Mobilise media and civil society in monitoring and exposing disinformation and its networks, and speak out when there are attacks on these actors.
  • Engage political parties to refrain from disinformation dirty tricks and commit to do so through a formal code.
  • Engage the internet companies to play a much more proactive and transparent role in combatting electoral disinformation.
  • Engage the public in voter education that includes education about how disinformation denies their right to determine the future, in other words – media and information literacy that empowers them to take full charge of their communications engagements.

South Africa deserves better than a disinformation-tainted election. The history of the country, and of those who laid down their lives for democracy, calls out for clear actions in favour of a poll that puts the people firmly in the driving seat – not disinformation.


[1] https://www.achpr.org/public/Document/file/English/guidelines_on_access_to_information_and_elections_in_africa_eng.pdf

[2] https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/wpfdaddisdecl3_may.pdf

[3] https://www.osce.org/fom/302796

[4] https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000371486

[5] See http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/resources/news-and-in-focus-articles/all-news/news/publication_launch_co_regulation_as_a_way_to_face_online_di/

[6] https://www.undp.org/content/dam/uruguay/docs/GD/undp-uy-pacto-etico-definformacion.pdf

[7] https://www.bpb.de/gesellschaft/digitales/digitale-desinformation/290568/relevanz-und-regulierung-von-social-bots