Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy, held its presidential election in February 2023. In the lead-up voters had to wade through a sea of political disinformation. And the spreading of false information continued as the votes were being counted – and afterwards
Nearly 10 other countries, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, South Sudan and Sierra Leone, will hold presidential elections in 2023, and in 2024 others, such as South Africa, Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Egypt, go to the polls.
If parliamentary and local elections are included, the number rises to more than 20 African countries in 2023. Against this political backdrop and the resulting potential for disinformation, the forecast for honest public debate and post-election stability, from where we sit, is gloomy.
As we marked international fact-checking day on 2 April, here’s what we have learned from our efforts to fact-check the elections in Nigeria and Kenya, and what the African electorate can do to promote honest public debate, credible elections and evidence-based decision-making.
1) Targeting journalists, the judiciary and election management bodies is a powerful tactic
Political campaigners are increasingly targeting the media, the judiciary and election management bodies with political disinformation. These institutions are often accused of bias or incompetence, or even portrayed as corrupt or unreliable.
Some false or misleading information is used to intimidate journalists or officials perceived as a threat to political campaigns. In Nigeria, for example, there were reports of political support groups exaggerating and announcing their leader’s victory before the country’s Independent National Electoral Commission had collated results.
The aim is to undermine the credibility of these institutions and the people who work within them, to erode public confidence and to promote diversionary alternative narratives that will sow discord and confusion.
2) Ethnicity, culture and religion are elevated and exploited in elections
Elections in many African countries are seen as an ethnic census, as political mobilisation is often along ethnic lines.
As a result, public debate on key socio-economic issues, such as the economy, jobs, governance, education and healthcare is often stifled. Instead, the ethnicity of politicians is emphasised, with negative stereotyping dominating political narratives.
In Nigeria, these issues, along with political zoning and geography, came to the fore in the recently concluded elections.
Exploiting these divisions makes it easier for political campaigns to invoke ethnic, religious or even cultural solidarity, polarise and pollute the debate, and possibly win elections without addressing public policy issues.
Culture, too, is being hijacked by political dog-whistling, as we have seen in Kenya.
3) People are more connected, but voters are still vulnerable to false information
Internet use in Africa is growing, according to the latest data from the International Telecommunications Union, the United Nations agency for information, communication and technology.
However, multiple barriers make the digital experience less enabling for African voters. These include limited digital literacy skills to navigate the online landscape, inaccessible or poor quality public information, and even language. The language of the internet is often English, French or Arabic, but not every connected African speaks these languages.
Poor regulation of online spaces makes it easy for promoters of political disinformation to use data analytics, as seen in the Cambridge Analytica scandal.
And when media houses erect paywalls, it makes quality information expensive and inaccessible to many people, forcing them to seek out lower quality information. As some have argued, “democracy dies behind paywalls”.
4) Government regulation is risky and inadequate
Most threats to democracy are regulated by governments. However, when it comes to political disinformation, government regulation is difficult because some in power use the levers of the state to spread false and misleading information during elections in order to retain power.
In addition, state authorities can sometimes mean to combat false information and hate speech, but end up suppressing the right to information and freedom of expression.
While it is useful to have laws to promote privacy, digital security and safety, and to encourage the circulation of verifiable information, these should be balanced against the risk of stifling honest public debate.
5) Platform accountability in African elections still a work in progress
Most of the popular social media platforms – Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Telegram, Instagram, Tiktok and YouTube – used in Africa are owned by foreign companies based in or operating from the US, Europe or China.
These platforms often focus on Africa during elections and work with fact-checkers, including Africa Check, to tackle online disinformation.
They invest in tools, funding and people to tackle misinformation in the African context, but often on a project basis. Once elections are over, they move on. It is therefore not easy to hold these companies accountable for the spread of hate speech and political disinformation on their platforms.
It’s also not clear how algorithms prioritise online debates on these platforms, how certain issues are amplified and how false information is de-amplified. The sustainability of strategies, tools and tactics to fight online disinformation during elections is difficult to achieve for proprietary and financial reasons.
The question remains: how do African governments and civil society hold these foreign multinationals accountable for political disinformation, beyond the obvious data protection and digital privacy laws? Put another way, if these platforms don’t promote accurate data and honest public debate on the continent, what recourse do African governments have?
What can the African voter do in the face of political disinformation during elections?
Here are five of our tips:
- Media, digital and information literacy helps voters understand how the media works, how to assess the reliability of news stories, how to verify information, where to get credible information, and how to safely and intelligently spot and stop the cycle of political disinformation. More literacy clinics are needed to help counter the evolving strategies of information pollution. Election management bodies and other institutions must also work to develop and implement clear and transparent communication strategies to provide timely information on contested issues.
- In all the countries where Africa Check works, it has become increasingly clear that civil society, media organisations, journalists, government agencies, technology platforms and the public need to work together to monitor, pre-empt, debunk and call out harmful political disinformation. These collaborative efforts have worked in Kenya and Nigeria, and will be used in Senegal and South Africa for their next elections.
- It is important to understand the history, culture, religion and political context before developing strategies to target political and electoral disinformation. You need to understand the context of the issues being publicly debated, unpack all the angles of the conversation, and identify how those angles are being abused to further social divisions and spread disinformation. Then take appropriate action to break the cycle without alienating the people you are trying to reach with credible information.
- While fact-checking alone may not be enough, it is useful to empower fact-checkers through material, financial and support with tools, so that countries enable more people to fact-check and debunk for the public. Fact-checkers help the public sort out fact from fiction and hold public figures accountable for the claims they make.
- As technology evolves, fact-checking organisations need to build partnerships with technology platforms to develop tools that keep pace with the evolution of disinformation. Sophisticated election disinformation campaigns are highly coordinated, using tactics and strategies that reach many people quickly. Having tools developed through artificial intelligence and machine learning that can detect patterns, identify trends, and map the trajectory and actors of political disinformation networks will help provide early warning and disrupt these networks.
One last thing …
Ultimately, African countries need to find ways to build resilience against political disinformation. This requires a sustained effort to promote transparency, accountability and democratic values. This will help public figures and political campaigns to base their public statements on evidence. Countries need to invest in raising awareness of the dangers of disinformation and promoting critical thinking skills among citizens, even as they devise ways to ask social media platforms to label or remove false information and crack down on disinformation networks.
Written by Alphonce Shiundu, Kenya editor and Motunrayo Joel, Nigeria deputy editor/health researcher at Africa Check.