By Juliet Nanfuka |
Disinformation has had a significant influence on public opinion and narrative, political discourse, and social cohesion globally. African nations have witnessed a surge in the spread of disinformation, often enabled by social media platforms and an increasingly interconnected digital society as internet penetration grows. This proliferation of disinformation has serious implications for democracy and the enjoyment of fundamental rights, which underscores the urgent need for effective countermeasures.
In many instances, governments appear to be key instigators of disinformation, while non-state actors, including political opposition groups and activists, as well as foreign agents, have sometimes served as key instigators and agents of disinformation. Indeed, one of the primary catalysts behind the rise of disinformation in Africa is the widespread reliance on social media platforms, as for many users on the continent, social media remains the primary way to access the internet.
As such, leading up to the aptly termed “Year of Democracy” in 2024, when countries making up over 50% of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) will undergo elections, various efforts have been undertaken to understand and counter disinformation. The Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) has been involved in various such initiatives, including research to document and understand disinformation in Africa.
In June 2020, CIPESA joined a coalition of civil society groups that launched an interactive portal, (LEXOTA), to track and analyse disinformation laws, policies, and enforcement patterns across Africa. The portal was developed against a backdrop of accelerating state action on Covid-19 disinformation. A 2022 CIPESA study into disinformation in Africa found that the perpetrators, channels, tools, and tactics used in disinformation campaigns have increasingly become complex, diverse, and widespread.
In March 2023, CIPESA, in partnership with Bertelsmann Stiftung, assembled over 25 experts from 15 African countries in a two-day engagement hosted in Nairobi, Kenya. The engagement was followed by a series of bilateral discussions with government representatives, non-governmental organisations, and journalists to gain additional insights on the manifestation and effects of disinformation. The meeting resulted in a series of takeaways highlighting the need for more research into how disinformation is evolving and the types of efforts required to better and more directly counter disinformation in Africa.
The meeting formed part of the Berterlsmann-Stuftung Upgrade Democracy Initiative which aims to strengthen democracy’s resistance to disinformation, hate and incitement, and polarisation in the age of digitisation by, among others, building bridges between diverse, international actors and disseminating solutions that successfully counter disinformation in their respective contexts or innovatively use digital tools to strengthen democracy.
Disinformation has in recent years also been the focus of sessions at the annual, CIPESA-convened Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica) which provides an avenue for the deliberation of the most pressing concerns informing the digital rights landscape. In recent years, disinformation, and its redress have been the focus of various sessions at the Forum. This year. As such, insights from the discussion in Nairobi fed into the recent FIFAfrica, where a collaborative panel discussion titled “Guardians of Truth: Media, Technology, and the Fight Against Disinformation” was hosted by Bertelsmann, CIPESA, and the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA). The session delved into the multifaceted challenges posed by disinformation campaigns, examining their impact on societies, politics, and public discourse.
Panelists included Nompilo Simanje, Africa Advocacy and Partnerships Lead at International Press Institute; Obioma Okonkwo, Head of the Legal Department at Media Rights Agenda (Nigeria); Daniel O’Maley, Senior Digital Governance Specialist at the Center for International Media Assistance; Paige Collings, Senior Speech and Privacy Activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation; and Paul Kimumwe, Senior Program Officer at CIPESA.
The session also highlighted the challenging position of the media which are facing the brunt of states who are using the grey area of disinformation-related legislation as a basis to curtail freedom of expression and media freedom. The case of Olamilekan Hammed, a Nigerian journalist who was arrested and detained for over 135 days, was noted. Hammed had republished a report about the “alleged criminal records” of a governor in the country.
The use of legislation to censor and silence legitimate speech was also stressed, as were the tensions between state and platform interests when tackling disinformation. An example cited Nigeria suspended Twitter in June 2021 for deleting a post made from the president’s account. Another was of Uganda’s 2021 Uganda elections, when Meta removed several accounts promoting the ruling party, which it accused of coordinated inauthentic behaviour (CIB), and the Uganda government retaliated by blocking access to the internet for five days, and to Meta services up to today. Meta refers to CIB as the use of multiple Facebook or Instagram assets working in concert to misrepresent themselves, artificially boost the popularity of content, or engage in behaviours designed to enable other violations under the platform’s community standards, and where the use of fake accounts is central to the operation.
Disinformation in Africa is evolving from networks of domestic domestic actors and “influencers for hire” who create and spread disinformation for financial gain to include external actors, entailing foreign governments and non-state entities, who are increasingly influencing narratives within the continent. This was witnessed in the 2018 Kenya elections where Cambridge Analytica – a London headquartered company – employed various efforts to sway public opinion in favour of the ruling party.
Current and future efforts to address disinformation in Africa face an uphill battle as the vice is increasingly driven by political and financial interests at national and global levels. This presents the dual challenge of combating both internal and external sources of disinformation amidst limited fact-checking resources, shrinking access to platform API, growing use of more sinister tactics enabled by artificial intelligence (AI), and limited digital literacy. These dynamics call for more robust national and regional strategies, informed by collaboration between governments, civil society, and the platforms, to effectively counter disinformation and safeguard the integrity of public discourse.
In this regard, CIPESA has been supporting efforts to coalesce regional actors and mobilise continental institutions to fight disinformation. In October 2023, CIPESA, alongside Global Partners Digital, ARTICLE 19 Senegal/West Africa, PROTEGE QV of Cameroon, and the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria, provided joint recommendations for addressing disinformation to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) 77th Ordinary Session held in Arusha, Tanzania.
Disinformation has broadened the need for increased digital savvy and literacy. As the tactics of disinformation continue to evolve, truth will become harder to discern from fiction. CIPESA’s work on disinformation is premised on recognising that disinformation undermines the resilience and safety of human rights defenders (HRDs) and journalists, hampers free expression and public participation and impairs electoral integrity. Tackling disinformation, therefore, requires a keen understanding of the disinformation ecosystem (instigators, agents, its effects, the ‘disinformation hunters’) and garnering stakeholder perspectives on workable ways to tackle the problem – including growing and developing a community of guardians of truth.