Beware fake news in run-up to polls

Calls have been issued for voters to exercise pragmatism and caution as the May 29 elections approach.

Calls have been issued for voters to exercise pragmatism and caution as the May 29 elections approach.

Published Apr 2, 2024


Calls have been issued for voters to exercise pragmatism and caution as the May 29 elections approach.

An academic thought leader group has warned the public about social media influencers and their impact on perception to drive their agendas.

Professor Vukosi Marivate of the University of Pretoria (UP) Data Science for Social Impact Research Group (DSFSI) said this trend emerged during South Africa’s 2021 municipal elections. And it continues.

Researchers from UP and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) recently hosted a virtual media briefing to share research on the potential effects of disinformation and fake news during elections.

The online briefing featured discussions on strategies and interventions to mitigate the negative consequences of disinformation. Marivate said leveraging data science was a powerful tool to combat this online scourge.

“Spreading disinformation affects the thoughts and feelings of online users,” he said.

“The major current challenge we face is access to data. All this data is held within social media platforms, and with changes to platforms like X, formerly known as Twitter, reducing access to data makes research on disinformation extremely hard for researchers. Without access to this data, we are unable to analyse the information out there.”

Marivate said social media influencers and people, who use knowledge inappropriately, have found ways to influence public perceptions by framing specific topics to drive their agendas.

There was a need for policies and regulation that would allow researchers to access social media data, he said.

There are difficulties with automated content moderation, local languages and code switching. This means systems in place for content moderation usually apply to English language content; in South Africa, which has 12 official languages, the systems are not able to detect whether the content is disinformation or harmful, he said.

If the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) violated election rules online, it would be hard to monitor, because of limited direct access or sample data from platforms, he said.

Marivate’s research focused on utilising data-driven approaches to support the public, institutions and the media to counter fake news and malicious disinformation, which pose significant threats to social cohesion and trust.

The DSFSI employed cutting-edge natural language processing as a solution, he said. “With the upcoming 2024 national elections, we have a forum that helps to contextualise information, fact-check it, inform the public and escalate disinformation through different tools like Real411 (a reporting platform),” he said.

The CSIR’s research group leader in cybersecurity Dr Zubeida Dawood provided an expert analysis of the nature of fake news, detection techniques and the potential impact of disinformation, particularly during elections.

“To empower voters, we need to teach them to be vigilant and to discern fact from fake news. We need to be aware of common tactics, like doctored audio messages. This will enhance the public’s ability to identify and reject disinformation,” she said.

Dawood said collaborative efforts between the government, tech companies, higher education institutions and the public are essential for creating a resilient defence against disinformation.

“UP and the CSIR’s Information and Cybersecurity Centre are collaborating on a project to detect fake news during elections. It involves using artificial intelligence and machine learning with advanced algorithms to analyse patterns and identify fake news, and will focus on continuous learning to adapt to evolving disinformation tactics,” Dawood said.

Dawood offered tips on what to look out for when determining whether information is reliable or fake.

This included checking the source and URL; looking up the author; verifying the information on other sites; checking the date of the information; checking the text for grammatical and spelling errors; using online tools like to verify the article and asking a tech-savvy friend to verify the content.

Cape Times