South Africa’s Elections: A Call for Vigilance Amidst the Rising Tide of Disinformation

By Victor Kapiyo |

South Africa is holding its seventh general election today, May 29, 2024. Over 14,000 candidates are vying for seats as part of the 400 members of the National Assembly and at least 445 members of Provincial Legislatures in the nine provinces.

Ahead of the election, misinformation, disinformation and threats to privacy rights have been noted. These capitalise on the issues at stake in the election, such as poverty and economic inequality, unemployment, violent crime, corruption, service delivery failures, difficult race relations, and xenophobia to polarise and shape public opinion. There has been a proliferation of propaganda and doctored news stories, deployment of coordinated trolls, troops and bots of online influencers as part of smear campaigns, and weaponisation of disinformation campaigns for political purposes, which many warn could undermine the integrity of the elections.

A new Policy Brief by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy (CIPESA) reviews how different actors, including political parties, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), and social media platforms have leveraged technology to promote a peaceful and credible election. However, the brief also notes that as the internet, social media and technology adoption increase, attacks on information and election integrity could intensify if multi-actor action does not continue to be taken.

The election pits the ruling African National Congress (ANC) against its main rivals, the Democratic Alliance (DA) and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), even as newer parties such as uMkhonto weSizwe join the fray. The country of 60.7 million people has 27.6 million registered voters, of whom 44.7% are men and 55.2% are women.

South Africa has been renowned for its strong and independent judiciary, free press, vibrant democracy, and generally free and fair elections over the years. However, rankings in press freedom have declined due to increased attacks against journalists, especially by politicians, ahead of the elections.

As of 2024, the country had 45.3 million internet users, representing an internet penetration rate of 74%, and 118.6 million mobile connections, equivalent to a mobile penetration rate of 195%. Also, most people in the country are digitally literate, with the average internet user spending over nine hours a day online. Political parties have leveraged online platforms for political advertising and have since January 2024 spent ZAR 4.94 million (USD 269,961) on Google Ads, with the DA and Freedom Front Plus spending 79.8% of this amount. These developments mean that technology and the internet will play an important role in the election period.

Yet disinformation has taken centre-stage in the election. Some of the misleading information has targeted prominent personalities such as politicians and musicians, highlighted racial and xenophobic undertones or misled the public about the elections. For example, a ‘deepfake’ video published on TikTok and X in March 2024, depicted former United States (US) president Donald Trump endorsing the new uMkhonto weSizwe (MK) party. It was debunked by AFP, which found that the clip was an altered 2017 NBC interview with Trump.

On January 19, a viral video from Brazil of two men assaulting another man was disseminated on social media with the claim that the victim was a white farmer and his assailants were linked to the EFF. Another video that went viral on Facebook and WhatsApp in April made a false claim that Mozambican migrants were being issued with ID cards by state agents to vote in Gauteng province. Another post on May 25 on Facebook, claimed that voters must bring their black ballpoint pens to voting stations as they will only be given pencils to vote, and their marks would be erased upon voting. The IEC rejected this claim as untrue.

In addition, there have been attempts to impersonate key election officials on social media, and concerns around voters’’ privacy and data breaches. For example, in January, it was reported that the IEC Chairperson, Mosotho Moepya had been a victim of an imposter on WhatsApp. The imposter had on two separate incidents conversed with unsuspecting officials of political parties purporting to arrange to influence the election.

Ahead of the elections, various stakeholders and groups have been taking action to address the potential threats to election and information integrity. There are commendable efforts such as the adoption of the Principles and Guidelines for the Use of Digital and Social Media in Elections in Africa; the signing of the election code of conduct by political parties and candidates; and the use of digital platforms by the IEC to share information on election results, political party statistics, voter registration, voter information, voter education, and e-learning. South Africa’s Information Regulator also published a guidance note on how political parties and candidates could use the personal information of voters ahead of the elections.

There are also laudable efforts such as the Real411 portal to track misinformation and disinformation; enhanced efforts to act-check by Africa Check and AFP; and measures by platforms such as Google, Meta, and TikTok to promote election integrity, including working with fact-checkers, conducting content moderation and labelling, media information literacy, transparency on political advertising and directing users to reliable and trustworthy information.

From the foregoing, it is clear that the fault lines that have fragmented the unity of the Rainbow Nation are being manipulated in ways that threaten its democracy. Various stakeholders must continue to make concerted efforts to promote a healthy information ecosystem and to defend electoral integrity. Therefore, we make the following recommendations:

We call upon all stakeholders including civil society, the IEC, social media platforms, media, fact-checking organisations, political actors, election observers, and law enforcement to be vigilant before, during and after the elections.

We call upon stakeholders to collaborate in monitoring digital threats to election and information integrity and implement robust responses to combat them whilst protecting digital rights.

We call upon civil society and election observers to document the actions of and hold the government, IEC, social media platforms and other actors accountable for their responses.

We call upon the IEC, political parties, candidates and social media platforms to adhere to the Principles and Guidelines for the Use of Digital and Social Media in Elections in Africa.

Read the full Brief here.

The ADRF Awards USD 134,000 to 10 Initiatives to Advance Tech Accountability in Africa

Announcement |

The grant recipients of the eighth round of the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF) will implement projects focused on Artificial Intelligence (AI), hate speech, disinformation, microtargeting, network disruptions, data access, and online violence against women journalists and politicians. The work of the 10 initiatives, who were selected from 130 applications, will span the breadth of the African continent in advancing tech accountability.

“The latest round of the ADRF is supporting catalytic work in response to the urgent need to counter the harms of technology in electoral processes,” said Ashnah Kalemera, the Programmes Manager at the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) – the administrators of the Fund. She added that for many of the initiatives being supported, tech accountability was a new area of work but the various projects’ advocacy, research and storytelling efforts would prove instrumental in pushing for tech justice

Established in 2019 as a rapid response and flexible funding mechanism, the ADRF aims to overcome the limitations of reach, skills, resources, and consistency in engagement faced by new and emerging initiatives working to defend and promote rights and innovation in the face of growing digital authoritarianism and threats to digital democracy in Africa. The sum of USD 134,000 awarded in the latest round, which was administered by CIPESA in partnership with Digital Action, brings to USD 834,000 the total amount awarded by the ADRF since inception to 62 initiatives across the continent.

According to Kalemera, the growth in the number of applicants to the ADRF reflects the demand for seed funding for digital rights work on the continent. Indeed, whereas the call for proposals for the eighth round was limited to tech accountability work, many applicants submitted  strong proposals on pertinent issues such as digital inclusion, media and information literacy, digital safety and security, surveillance, data protection and privacy, access and affordability – underscoring the cruciality of the ADRF. 

Here’s What the Grantees Will be Up To

In the lead-up to local government elections in Tanzania, Jamii Forums will engage content hosts, creators and journalists on obligations to tackle hate speech and disinformation online as a means to safeguard electoral integrity. In parallel, through its Jamii Check initiative, Jamii Forums will raise public awareness about the harms of disinformation and hate speech.

Combating hate speech and disinformation is also the focus of interventions supported in Senegal and South Sudan. Ahead of elections in the world’s youngest nation, DefyHateNow will monitor and track hate speech online in South Sudan, host a stakeholder symposium in commemoration of the International Day for Countering Hate Speech as a platform for engagement on collective action to combat hate speech, and run multi-media campaigns to raise public awareness on the harms of hate speech. Post elections in Senegal, Jonction will analyse the link between disinformation and network disruptions and engage stakeholders on alternatives to disruptions in future elections.

In the Sahel region, events leading up to coups in Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger have been characterised by restrictions on media and internet freedom, amidst which disinformation and violent extremism thrived. As some of the states in the region, notably Burkina Faso and Mali, move towards an end to military rule and head to the polls, the Thoth Media Research Institute will research disinformation and its role in sustaining authoritarian narratives and eroding human rights. The learnings from the research will form the basis of stakeholder convenings on strategies to combat disinformation in complex political, social, and security landscapes. Similarly, Internet Sans Frontières (ISF) will study the role of political microtargeting in shaping campaign strategies and voter behaviour, and the ultimate impact on the rights to privacy and participation in Mali. 

In South Africa, the Legal and Resources Centre (LRC), will raise awareness about the adequacy and efficacy of social media platforms’ content moderation policies and safeguards as well as online political advertising models in the country’s upcoming elections. The centre will also provide legal services for reparations and litigate for reforms related to online harms.

A study has found that Africa’s access to data from tech platforms, for research and monitoring electoral integrity, was below that in Europe and North America. Increased access to platform data for African researchers, civil society organisations, and Election Management Bodies (EMBs) would enable a deeper understanding of online content and its harms on the continent, and inform mitigation strategies. Accordingly, the ADRF will support Research ICT Africa to coordinate an alliance to advocate for increased data access for research purposes on the continent and to develop guidelines for ethical and responsible access to data to study elections-related content.

The impact of AI on the information ecosystem and democratic processes in Africa is the focus of two grantees’ work. On the one hand, the Eastern Africa Editors Society will assess how editors and journalists in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Ethiopia have adopted AI and to what extent they adhere to best practice and the principles of the Paris Charter on AI and Journalism. On the other hand, the Outbox Foundation through its Thraets initiative will research the risks of AI-generated disinformation on elections, with a focus on Ghana and Tunisia. The findings will feed into tutorials for journalists and fact checkers on identifying and countering AI-generated disinformation as part of elections coverage, and awareness campaigns on the need for transparency on the capabilities of AI tools and their risks to democracy. 

Meanwhile, a group of young researchers under the stewardship of the Tanda Community-Based Organisation will research how deep fakes and other forms of manipulated media contribute to online gender-based violence against women journalists and politicians in the context of elections in Ghana, Senegal, and Namibia. The study will also compare the effectiveness of the legal and regulatory environment across the three countries in protecting women online, hold consultations and make recommendations for policy makers, platforms  and civil society on how to promote a safe and inclusive digital election environment for women.

Past and present supporters of the ADRF include the Centre for International Private Enterprise (CIPE), the Ford Foundation, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), the German Society for International Cooperation Agency (GIZ), the Omidyar Network, the Hewlett Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Skoll Foundation and New Venture Fund (NVF).

Governments Urged to Adopt Specific Policies Addressing Tech-Facilitated Violence Against Women in Politics

By Asimwe John Ishabairu |

As part of events to commemorate this year’s International Women’s Day, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) hosted a webinar under the theme ‘InspireInclusion: African Women in Politics are Pushing Back Against Tech Facilitated Online Violence’. The webinar highlighted the importance of increased political inclusion of women, which  is undermined by rising affronts to women’s presence and participation in political narratives both online and offline.

“As women, we indeed face a lot of online abuse, and it’s really unfortunate that whatever is happening now may hinder those who would want to be politicians, especially women. Because of online abuse, most women who want to join politics will be afraid of putting their life in the public eye,” said Susan Dossi, Member of Parliament (MP) representing Chikwawa West Constituency in Malawi. She added that Malawi is working on strategies to ensure that the country has more women in parliament.

Tanzania’s MP representing Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs), Neema Lugangira, acknowledged that she had on several occasions been a victim of online abuse.

“When we are talking about online abuse, it’s not just on the social media platforms where you don’t know the people who are doing these abuses. It is from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, all the way to WhatsApp groups where you actually know the people’s [contact numbers]. It is not an easy situation to be in,” said Lugangira.

She added that abusers often  hide under the guise of exercising their freedom of expression to critique female politicians, but in reality  “they are using their freedom of expression to limit us from using our own freedom of expression.,”

Lugangira said that as a result of the abuse they are subjected to, many women parliamentarians choose not to be online and instead opt to self-censor.

She added that online abuse of women in politics is diminishing democracy and hampering African countries’ efforts  to increase the number of women and girls who want to join politics.

The webinar also cast a spotlight on how women in active politics in African countries are working to protect the rights of women online, including through legal frameworks and engaging technology platforms to address Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence (TFGBV) associated with political spaces and discourse.

As a possible solution to this, Modestus Amutse, the Deputy Minister of Information and Communication Technology in Namibia, said more African countries need to develop policies with specific provisions to protect women against gender-based violence, especially online, so as to give women confidence to use the internet without fear.

He added that while countries have laws that regulate the use of the internet in terms of data protection or cyber security, in many cases such legislation is not gender-specific.

“They are just there to protect, perhaps the security of everyone on an equal basis,” said Amutse. “I would have loved to see policies that have provisions targeting the protection of women so that they are free when they use the internet.”

Meanwhile, Adedolapo Adegoro, a Technology Policy Analyst with Tech Hive Advisory, noted that Nigeria has one of the lowest levels of women’s representations in parliament or holding political positions, in Africa.i She said the country had failed  to implement laws that seek to protect women from online bullying.

“The Nigerian Cyber Crimes Act has the highest provisions that sort of protect women from online bullying. These provisions have been there for quite a while, however, the first time it really received definition of interpretation from the courts was about four or five years ago,” Adedolapo noted.

She cited a need to adopt a multi-stakeholder approach where all actors are involved in putting together policies and procedures geared towards protection of women online.

Sylvia Musalagani, Head of Safety Policy for Africa, Middle East and Turkey at Meta, said that their organization believes that women have a right to participate in the online environment and a right to find economic opportunities.

“We do recognise the place that our platforms play in women’s participation online and we are committed to continue having direct conversations with parliamentary initiatives and share ideas on how to improve,” she said.

The panelists appealed to social media platform operators to improve their content moderation practices regarding TFGBV. They observed a need for Meta to engage legislators through the African Parliamentary Network on Internet Governance (APNIG) so as to strengthen the safety of online space and enable more women  to join  politics.

“For more women to retain political seats, we need to be visible… If we are not online, it limits our visibility,” said Lugangira, who also heads APNIG.

According to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 on Gender Equality, digital technologies have the potential to increase women’s inclusion, participation, and engagement in politics, providing them with a platform to have their voices heard.

Over the years, women in politics have increasingly relied on various digital tools, especially social media platforms, to connect with their constituencies. However, they have also become the targets of online threats and abuse. It was observed that TFGBV not only impedes women’s equitable and meaningful participation in public offices but also their long-term willingness to engage in public life.

Online Activism is Moving the Dial on Social Accountability in Uganda

By Peter G. Mwesige |

The viral #UgandaParliamentExhibition hashtag campaign on X on the excesses of the Ugandan parliament has once again put digital media at the centre of debate on citizen agency in the demand for transparency and accountability from duty bearers.

Fifteen years or so ago, the jury was still out on whether digital platforms including social media were a boon to citizen participation or the bane of meaningful political action. Even more recently, “hashtag activism” or what some called “slacktivism” was still being dismissed as “performative activism” that inhibited offline participation or created the illusion of participation.

The debate remains unsettled, but there is no denying that social media platforms have “democratised access to information” and offered alternative avenues for citizens to amplify their voice in the demand for accountability from those that hold power.    

The Ugandan online exhibitions were started last year by Dr. Jimmy Spire Ssentongo, an academic, cartoonist, and social commentator. He has described them as “an open invitation to the public, to whoever has an issue about a particular institution or sector to come out … a public initiative to demand for accountability; to showcase things (people) are not happy about; to showcase their pain.”

From the #UgandaPotholeExhibition, the #UgandaHealthExhibition, the #UgandaNGOExhibition (where the activists appeared to devour their own), the #UgandaLabourExhibition, the #UgandaSecurityExhibition and so on, activists have been joined by Ugandans from all walks of life to shine the torchlight on pressing public concerns.

The #UgandaParliamentExhibition is slightly different. It has been organised under the AGORA Centre for Research, the brainchild of journalist and lawyer Agather Atuhaire, who recently won the U.S. State Department International Women of Courage Award (and last year won the European Union’s Human Rights Defenders’ Award in Uganda), fellow lawyer Godwin Toko, and others. Sharing evidence from official records, highlighting standout posts on digital flyers, throwing in the occasional handwritten satirical stingers from Ssentongo, and complementing tweeting with X Spaces, AGORA has flooded the zone with evidence of abuse of public funds at parliament. The vociferous Anthony Natif of Public Square and exiled activist and author Kakwenza Rukirabasaija have also lit up the exhibition.

In a space of about two weeks the #UgandaParliamentExhibition laid bare the scope of the abuse of public funds in the August House as well as blatant nepotism and favouritism in recruitment of staff.  The exhibition laid this at the door of the Speaker of Parliament Anita Among and the Parliamentary Commission that she heads, whose members include the Prime Minister, the Minister of Finance, the Leader of the Opposition (LoP) and a few Members of Parliament (MPs) representing both the ruling party and the opposition.

At the heart of the expose is the billions of shillings that have been spent in travel allowances, and the so-called corporate social responsibility by the Speaker, as well as the “service awards” that were passed as “personal to holder” for the former LoP Mathias Mpuuga and Commissioners Solomon Silwany, Prossy Akampurira Mbabazi, and Esther Afoyochan, all representing the ruling National Resistance Movement. Mpuuga bagged Uganda Shillings (UGX) 500 million, equivalent to 130,000 US Dollars (USD) while three Commissioners received UGX 400 million each.

The service award for the former LoP has already caused a storm in his party, the National Unity Platform, which has asked him to resign from the Commission. Other interest groups, such as the Uganda Law Society, have also weighed in, saying by participating in a meeting that passed awards which would benefit them personally, Mpuuga and the other commissioners violated the Leadership Code. 

The Speaker has refused to entertain any debate on what has been exposed by the #UgandaParliamentExhibition despite calls by a number of MPs that the institution should be held accountable in the same way it holds other government agencies to account. She remained adamant last week when new LoP Joel Ssenyonyi condemned the “deafening silence” by parliament on the issues raised on social media and the ruling party “rebel MP” Theodore Ssekikubo demanded a response to the “grave allegations” of impropriety and profligacy. “Me to answer you on hearsay, on things you have cooked on social media because I have said no to bum-shafting, I will not,” Among responded.

“Bum-shafting” was a derogatory reference to homosexuality, which is outlawed in Uganda. Under Among’s stewardship, parliament last year passed the Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2023, attracting backlash from the international community that has seen Uganda lose development funding.

Interestingly, Speaker Among had previously commended the online exhibitions. During the #UgandaHealthExhibition last year, she “urge(d) both public servants and political leaders to take feedback from the public in good faith and use it to improve further.”

President Yoweri Museveni had earlier responded to the #KampalaPotholeExhibition by directing the Ministry of Finance to release UGX 6 billion for emergency road repairs in the city. He has this time joined the Speaker to condemn the online activists. “How can you talk so much about Anita Among? (What) about those working for foreigners? We are going to expose those traitors,” Museveni said on March 23, 2024, after commissioning the Speaker’s Bukedea Teaching Hospital and College of Health Sciences in her home district. 

Clearly, online activism has moved the dial on social accountability. The government and others who have been the subject of the exhibitions may not always be responsive, but they can’t claim they haven’t heard the voice of the people.

One can argue that the traction of online social justice campaigns makes the riskier street protests unnecessary. Indeed, in a country where public demonstrations on hot button issues have been criminalised in complete disregard of the constitutional right of citizens to protest and petition the government, the alternative offered by digital platforms should be embraced.

But the digital warriors leading these campaigns still face the same risks that the street activists before them confronted – such as surveillance, online smear attacks, threats of arrests and other forms of intimidation. Accordingly, online activism should not be seen as a replacement of traditional forms of protest. As Dr. Ssentongo argued when he appeared on Robert Kabushenga’s #360Mentor X Space in April last year, it should not be an either-or-question. “Those who can organise online should and those who can organise (through) other means should (also do so),” he said.

The other issue that has been raised quite a lot especially during the #UgandaParliamentExhibition is the failure of the traditional news media (newspapers, radio, and television) to uncover the corruption in parliament.

The credibility of the journalists who cover parliament has taken a major knock, but this does not mean social media should replace mainstream media as our only sources of news as some have suggested.

In defence of the journalists who are still passionate about public affairs reporting, the gatekeeping bar for what gets to be published in the major media houses is much higher. On social media, anything goes, although to AGORA’s credit, most of the information they have released about parliament has been verified.

But it would be unrealistic to expect citizen-driven online campaigns to bring the same “discipline of verification” parliament’s Director of Communication and Public Affairs Chris Obore, a former journalist, seems to demand. Social media will always be messy. Just like democracy, some would say.

We need a multiplicity of platforms (both digital/social media as well as credible mainstream media) to provide information about what is happening in parliament and other public sectors, provide the public with platforms for debate, and hold duty bearers accountable.  

And we need sustained pressure both online and offline to continue driving the demand for accountability and meaningful change. In a democracy, what has been exposed through Uganda’s online exhibitions would have been enough to drive action and change. But in a country where leaders are openly contemptuous of public opinion, and where the public cannot count on free and fair elections to kick out those who abuse their trust, online activists and other social justice actors still have their work cut out.

About the author: Dr. Peter G. Mwesige is Chief of Party of the USAID Your Rights Activity led by CIPESA.

Webinar: How African Women in Politics Are Pushing Back Against Tech-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence

Event |

Gender diversity in political leadership is critical for promoting equity, inclusion, and economic benefits. However, gender disparities in political participation still exist globally, particularly in Africa. Digital technologies can assist in solving this disparity given their ability to give voice and civic agency to different political actors, especially women, and space for political engagement. As enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal 5 on Gender Equality, digital technologies have the potential to increase women’s inclusion, participation, and engagement in politics, providing them with a platform to have their voices heard. Indeed, women in politics are increasingly leveraging the power of various digital tools, and in particular social media platforms, to connect with their constituencies. 

Despite this reliance on online social platforms, women in politics have also become the targets of online threats and abuse. These attacks are heightened during election periods and when women voice dissenting opinions. This technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV) not only impedes women’s equitable and meaningful participation in public offices but also their long-term willingness to engage in public life. Further, it negatively influences the broader spectrum of women consuming or engaging with their content and consequently undermines the realization of the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Addressing these challenges is essential to ensure that digital technologies become true enablers for the enhancement of women’s participation in democracy and good governance, including in politics, rather than exacerbating existing disparities in Africa. 

This month, we join the global community in celebrating women under the themes of #InspireInclusion, which encourages the realisation of a gender-equal world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. However, amidst the global celebration, it is crucial to spotlight the  persistent TFGBV faced by African women in politics and the need to increase investment into addressing these concerns as highlighted by the United Nations campaign themed #InvestInWomen.

In an upcoming webinar, the Collaboration in International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) will focus on the importance of increased political inclusion of women in politics. The role of active online engagement will be highlighted as a key driver in enabling the needs of women in politics in various African countries and as a tool to meaningfully participate in the information society.  More importantly, the webinar will cast a spotlight on how women in active politics in various African countries are pushing back against the violence and negative narratives online and the role that legal frameworks and platforms have to play in addressing TFGBV associated with political spaces and discourse.  

Webinar details

Date:  March 15, 2024

Time: 14:00-15:00 (Nairobi Time).

Register to participate in the webinar here