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To Believe or Not to Believe: A Voter’s Guide to Scrolling Through the Bulls**t this Election Season



By Kavisha Pillay


Election season is upon us! You can be assured, dear voter, that regardless of where you are in South Africa, how you get your news, or how much  time you spend on social media and digital platforms, you are likely to be a target of disinformation over the next few months. 


We are about 90 days away from a very significant general election, and our politicians need your vote. So they will find ways to convince you with their big ideas, persuade you that only their policies are capable of positively shifting the trajectory of South Africa, while parading their shiny and charismatic leaders as our nation’s saviours. Now, this is an expected and encouraged part of electioneering. While this dynamic is a natural element of political campaigning, an insidious trend has emerged: the deliberate use of disinformation to instil fear, manipulate opinions, and divide the electorate.


Take, for example, President Ramaphosa’s claim that social grants would disappear if other opposition parties came into power, or former President Zuma, now leader of the MK Party, who commented that loadshedding ended during his term in office. Or, another recent claim from Arise South Africa leader Mpho Dagada who, in a video on X that received over 400 000 views, alleged that the ANC is trying to steal the election, due to the Independent Electoral Commission’s (IEC) legal requirement on parties to obtain thousands of signatures in order to contest elections at a national level and in each Province.  


So why would they do this? 


Put simply, Ramaphosa wants you to be afraid that social grants will end if the ANC is not in power - despite the fact that the DA, EFF, Rise Mzansi, and Change Starts Now have all outlined efforts to maintain, and in some instances expand, the provisions of social grants. 


Zuma wants to deflect from the fact that despite some reprieves from loadshedding during his term, state capture (including the capture of Eskom) and the failure to maintain our power plants plunged us into the crisis that we are currently facing and in which he had a direct role. 


And Dagada? Well, if he and his party were serious about contesting elections and participating meaningfully in our democracy, he would have known the threshold required by the IEC to get his party on the ballot - instead of putting out a dangerously false claim that our election is being stolen, due to his own party’s lack of homework.  

   

These tactics are not unique to South Africa; they mirror global trends where information campaigns exploit biases and fears to influence voter behaviour. As we approach election day, such strategies are likely to intensify.


Getting out of your echo chamber 

Given the noise and information overload that occurs during the election season, it is important that you, dear voter, analyse information that you receive critically. Don’t trap yourself into an echo chamber, where you are only engaging with ideas and people who think like you, look like you, or have a similar lifestyle to you. 


Challenge yourself to understand the positions of different parties, take time to read and understand the different manifestos, participate and engage in upcoming debates, townhalls, or political gatherings. Make an effort to understand the proposed rules, laws and policies that will come to shape our society for the next few decades. This is your democracy too and you need to understand all facets of it to recognise when and where it goes wrong. 


As political content starts to flood both online platforms and traditional media, reflect on your information processing habits. Ask yourself: Are you succumbing to confirmation bias, meaning that 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 judgments? Are you stereotyping political parties, policies, or individuals based on broad generalisations?


We are all naturally inclined toward certain biases, but adopting a critical and inquisitive mindset, open to debate and discussion, and eager for factual knowledge, is paramount when navigating the information ecosystem during election cycles and beyond. 


Be aware before you share

For individuals on social media or other online platforms, where a mere retweet, repost, or share can amplify and weave disinformation throughout our networks, it's crucial to pause and reflect on the following questions before disseminating political content: 

  1. Is this real? Is there any evidence to support the claims made in the post? Look for direct evidence supporting the claims. This could be in the form of statistics from reputable organisations, quotes from verifiable sources, or reports from credible news outlets.

  2. Who is the source of this content and are they credible? Determine who created or first shared the information. Is it an individual, an organisation, or a news outlet? What is their reputation? Consider the source's history. Have they been reliable and accurate in the past? Do they have expertise in the subject matter? Sources with a track record of accuracy and accountability are more reliable.

  3. Is this information published on a site / page that is trustworthy and reliable?  Is the information coming from a well-known and respected news outlet, an official organisation, or an established expert in the field? Trusted sources often have rigorous editorial standards and fact-checking processes. Look at the quality of the website or page sharing the information. Reputable sites typically have a professional appearance, clear information about their mission and the people behind them, and contact information. Be wary of sites that are filled with sensationalist headlines, numerous ads, or lack transparency about their sources.

  4. Are there any biases and what is the intent? Consider the possible bias of the source and the intent behind the information. Is it meant to inform, persuade, or incite? Recognising bias can help you understand the context and evaluate the information more critically.

  5. Does the content stir up particularly strong emotions? Disinformation often aims to elicit strong emotional reactions to drive shares and engagement. If a piece of content makes you feel extremely angry, scared, or euphoric, take a moment to step back and critically assess it before sharing.


Digital vigilance 

In the digital world, where disinformation can spread like wildfire, the act of reporting false content is a civic duty, in the same way that we should report a crime or act of wrongdoing if we witness it. 


If you come across false information this election season, don’t just continue to scroll. You can actively play a role in keeping our digital streets safer. Social media platforms and online forums typically offer mechanisms to flag content that is misleading or outright false. Using these tools not only aids in curtailing the reach of harmful disinformation but also signals to these platforms the need for stronger measures against the spread of falsehoods. This step is especially critical in the context of election-related content, where the stakes are high and the impact can be significant. 


Additionally, report this content to Media Monitoring Africa, Africa Check, or the Campaign On Digital Ethics (CODE) - all of whom are independent civil society organisations, actively working on countering disinformation during our elections. 


Every share counts

The floodgates of political content have been flung open, and amid this, our ability to sift through the noise to find kernels of truth will define the quality of our democratic engagement. Remember, a well-informed electorate is the bedrock of our democracy. By questioning the authenticity of the information that we consume, challenging our biases, and actively seeking out credible sources, we do more than just protect ourselves from the webs of disinformation; we also uphold the integrity of our electoral process.


So, dear voter, as you scroll through your feeds this election season, let your guiding principle be a blend of critical thinking, curiosity, and a hunger for facts. In doing so, you not only safeguard your own decision-making process but also contribute to the collective wisdom of our society, ensuring that participatory democracy and free and fair elections, in their truest sense, are both preserved and strengthened.


Kavisha Pillay is a social justice activist and the executive director of the Campaign On Digital Ethics (CODE).


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