By Nadine Kampire and CIPESA Writer |
The lead up to the December 2023 general elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) has seen an exponential growth in disinformation, particularly on social media. In a country with long-standing armed conflicts and where only one peaceful transfer of power has been witnessed in 63 years of independence, the deluge of disinformation threatens to deepen social division, undermine electoral integrity, and stoke post-election violence.
While journalists can play a critical role in countering falsehoods by providing accurate and unbiased information to the public, many Congolese journalists lack the skills and resources to identify, fact-check, and call out disinformation and hate speech. On the other hand, some mainstream media houses – particularly those owned by politicians – are actively disseminating disinformation and hate speech.
Ahead of the elections, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) worked with Congolese partners to build the capacity of journalists, activists and fact-checkers to fight disinformation. The engagements centred on tackling electoral disinformation as well as disinformation and hate speech related to the armed conflict in eastern parts of Congo.
Peace has eluded the Congo for decades. Much of the political turbulence and armed conflict has stemmed from the unwillingness of leaders to relinquish power, the run-away corruption, a central government that lacks control over large swatches of its territory, and the proliferation of armed groups in areas where the central government is absent.
In turn, politicians, armed groups and their allies exploit the social and economic challenges to stoke tension by manipulating public opinion to generate support for their extremist political views or groups and channelling the public anger to promote hate speech and disinformation to further escalate the ethnic and regional conflicts.
The December 20, 2023 presidential election has attracted 20 candidates, including the incumbent, Felix Tshisekedi, who is standing for his second and final term. His first term has been dogged by the M23 rebellion in the east of the country, which Congo says is supported by the Rwanda government, with whom the former broke diplomatic ties.
In late 2022, CIPESA convened a meeting for Congolese and Rwandan journalists and digital rights activists to discuss how they could play a more effective role in countering disinformation in the conflict between the two countries. That meeting gave journalists and activists an intimate understanding of the nature of disinformation related to the conflict, its instigators and spreaders, and drew up pathways for the journalists and activists to better combat disinformation.
In the earlier part of 2023, CIPESA and partners conducted interviews among journalists and human rights defenders in eastern Congo and border areas in Rwanda, including those involved in earlier capacity development engagements. From their accounts, it was apparent that conflict-related disinformation had grown exponentially as armed conflict intensified and relations between Congo and Rwanda further deteriorated. On the other hand, as elections drew closer, electoral disinformation bloomed too. Worryingly, journalists and government officials were among the main instigators and agents of disinformation.
The interviews indicated that the information war in the country had expanded. The country’s long history of political instability has created an environment where misinformation, disinformation and hate speech thrive, particularly on social media. As a result, social cohesion continues to be undermined, while armed conflict is fuelled. Divisions among the country’s diverse ethnic groups, and the deterioration of diplomatic relations with Rwanda, contributed to escalating tensions and hostility.
Last July, CIPESA again gathered journalists, human rights defenders and civil society players from Congo and Rwanda in the border town of Rubavu to grow their capacity and draw up efforts to counter electoral disinformation and hate speech. As media consultant Pascal Chirhalwirwa told the meeting, while it required commitment to combat the spread of disinformation, journalists and social media influencers had a primary role to fact-check news and create awareness about disinformation. Chirhalwirwa said unless digital literacy is created among community members by trusted actors such as independent journalists, efforts to fight disinformation will attain limited results.
Sammy Mupfuni, director of the fact-checking agency Congo Check, stated that electoral disinformation had raised tensions in communities, adding that several content creators and media houses had aligned themselves with factions on whose behalf they disseminated disinformation.
Many media houses in Congo are owned by politicians, many of whom shamelessly use them to promote partisan interests, including through the use of disinformation. The fact that many media houses struggle to maintain commercial viability means they are easily compromised to propagate disinformation and hate speech. The long-established, widespread, and corrupt practice of coupage, whereby journalists receive a cash payment for covering an event or reporting certain information, is funnelling disinformation narratives even in mainstream media.
Instigators of disinformation mostly use social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp, to mobilise support along ethnic lines, to discredit rival candidates and parties, to try and disenfranchise voters, and in some cases promote violence against groups of minorities or their political opponents. Indeed, labelling rivals “fake Congolese” or “candidate of the aggressor country” has been commonplace.
The weak media environment in the DR Congo and low media literacy among citizens enable the spread of false information without being challenged or fact-checked.
Whereas CIPESA’s engagements during 2022 and 2023, alongside initiatives such as Afia Amani, Congo Check and Blogoma are working to push back against disinformation, to promote community awareness about the problem and to promote digital literacy, particularly in eastern Congo, their reach remains limited given the enormity of the problem and the resources which disinformation promoters possess.
Similarly, media houses still keen on providing truthful information struggle to match the speed at which conflict- and elections-related disinformation spread due to limited skills and funding. Enhancing editorial guidance on the part of local media outlets and journalists also remains a need, as is building the capacity of a larger movement of journalists, independent content creators and activists that are able to fact-check, promote professional journalistic ethics, undertake digital literacy for citizens, and speak out loudly against the vice of disinformation in the country.