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Fighting misinformation is not impossible, if we make the effort

By Janine Erasmis



It’s election season and the mis-, dis-, and malinformation engine is in top gear.

Besides the predictable rhetoric of this political party or that one taking away certain services or privileges should they come into power, one of the most audacious and – let’s be honest – ridiculous efforts involves a deepfake video of would-be US president Donald Trump appearing to endorse the newly-established MK Party and its leader, former South African president and fellow would-be, Jacob Zuma.


In addition to the fact that Trump cares very little about Africa to begin with, the fact that the video was shared through the account of Zuma’s controversial daughter Duduzile Zuma-Sambudla, a prolific social media user with a penchant for spreading disinformation, should ring some alarm bells.


“Greetings, all South Africans,” says deepfake Trump genially. “My name is President Donald Trump. I urge all South Africans to vote for uMkhonto WeSizwe May 29. The African National Congress of Cyril Ramaphosa has failed all South Africans. With this new backed party by President Jacob Zuma, all South Africans will matter.


The video has been hilariously countered by a similar video showing an identical Trump telling people not to vote for MK but rather for the IFP – two bitter rivals fighting for control of KwaZulu-Natal province – though not before warning that both videos are AI-generated.

It has also been thoroughly debunked by fact-checking divisions of AFP and others. For a start, it should be immediately apparent to the viewer that Trump’s mouth begins moving seconds before his voice is heard, and the synchronisation of mouth and voice is erratic at best.


Nevertheless, it’s certain that many South Africans will be taken in by this deepfake.

Therefore it would be very wise to not underestimate the threat that mis-, dis-, and malinformation pose to democracy, the truth, and social cohesion.


Worldwide threat

The World Economic Forum (WEF) cautions that over the next two years, and extending into the decade ahead, misinformation and disinformation will emerge as one of the most severe global risks, one which will “further widen societal and political divides”.

With almost three-billion people across the world expected to head to the polls in 2024, says WEF, “the widespread use of misinformation and disinformation, and tools to disseminate it, may undermine the legitimacy of newly elected governments”.

Such use might also lead to a growing distrust of information, says WEF, which in turn will deepen polarised views – “a vicious cycle that could trigger civil unrest and possibly confrontation”.


However, the other side of the coin is the risk of suppressing freedom of expression and hastening the erosion of rights as authorities intensify their efforts to curb the proliferation of false information. There are also risks associated with not doing anything.

Authorities, therefore, cannot be the only ones acting against fake news and disinformation. The more people and organisations who are involved, from diverse sectors of society, the greater the possibility of exposing potentially harmful information.


Countering fake news

In South Africa, the same cautions have arisen and as citizens with a duty to be responsible, it is up to all of us to heed those cautions and where we can, try to put them into practice in this election season and beyond.


New civil society organisation Campaign on Digital Ethics (CODE) has focused strongly on integrity in the upcoming elections, and the threats to that integrity. The organisation’s running global election tracker analyses elections that have taken place and shows where AI and disinformation played a role in the outcome.


“As a monitor, you will help detect and report any suspicious or misleading online content related to elections. Your vigilance ensures fair and transparent elections, free from the influence of disinformation and manipulation. By becoming a digital elections monitor, you contribute to the strength of our democracy and help protect the voices of the people.”


Meanwhile, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) revealed in March 2024 at a media briefing on combating fake news and disinformation during the elections, that it is developing a human-centric framework to detect fake election news.


The framework will serve as an additional layer to existing online tools, said cyber-security researcher Dr Zubeida Dawood, group leader in the CSIR’s information and cyber-security centre. She was speaking at the above-mentioned media briefing, which was hosted by the CSIR and Pretoria University.


“Technological tools may lack cultural nuance, but human judgement can interpret information for various cultural backgrounds, ensuring accuracy in identifying misinformation.”


The human-centric approach will foster trust by engaging communities directly while encouraging dialogue and leveraging local knowledge to verify information.


Vigilance and awareness

Sometimes all it takes is vigilance and awareness to increase the chances of escaping the fake news trap.


“Disinformation, particularly through social media, has become a widespread tactic used globally to sway elections,” said Dawood.


It is important, therefore, for people to consume news from a variety of sources, because media houses also have their biases and play a role in the spread of fake news. Having more than one source of news will help to provide verification of shared information and minimise the chances of being fooled by something that is fake.


Empowering voters involves teaching them to be vigilant and able to discern fact from fake, Dawood said, echoing the words of CODE executive director Kavisha Pillay: “It is important that you, dear voter, critically analyse the information that you receive … are you succumbing to confirmation bias, meaning you favour information that aligns with your existing beliefs while dismissing contrary evidence? Are you jumping on the bandwagon, adopting opinions because they are popular rather than forming your own independent judgements?”


Voters must be discerning in the face of potential manipulation, Dawood said, and this involves constant alertness and awareness of common underhanded tactics such as doctored audio messages. Here are some tips:

  • Consider the source to determine if the URL and screenshot, if there is one, looks legitimate;

  • Read beyond the headline, checking the text for grammatical and spelling errors or signs it might have been written by AI;

  • Do research on the author to determine if they are in the habit of disseminating fake news or indeed, if they are real;

  • Cross-check for other supporting sources, such as reputable media houses;

  • Check the date, because often old fake news is recycled or incidents from years back are claimed to be more recent;

  • Determine if the writing is satire; and

  • When in doubt, turn to a friend or family member who is more tech savvy.


There are various online tools that can assist, such as Snopes, Africa Check, and Media Bias/Fact Check.


With all this valuable information at our fingertips, it is incumbent upon all of us to make an extra effort in the next few months to use it.


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