As we prepare to vote, be alert to the dangers of false information

With Wednesday’s elections, disinformation about our general elections is sure to spread more rapidly.

With Wednesday’s elections, disinformation about our general elections is sure to spread more rapidly.

Published May 28, 2024


Kira Alberts

According to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Risks Report, mis and disinformation is the biggest shortterm risk we face globally as it has the power to further widen societal and political divides.

This is not something we, as South Africans, can afford to take lightly.

In a recent article, Senzeni Ngubane, the acting director of Digital Media at the Government Communication and Information System, acknowledged this risk and emphasised the importance of countering disinformation in South Africa’s elections. With Wednesday’s elections, disinformation about our general elections is sure to spread more rapidly.

Given what is at stake, voters need to recognise the dangers of false information and be ready to combat it. Only then can they make an informed choice at the ballot box.

Dangers of Disinformation

Disinformation, defined as false information spread deliberately to deceive people or cause harm, can have severe consequences for our democracy.

During elections, the stakes are particularly high as disinformation can undermine public trust, polarise societies and influence election outcomes.

Trust in democratic institutions is the bedrock of any functional society.

When false information is disseminated, it erodes trust in the electoral process, government institutions and the media. This can lead to a disillusioned electorate and decreased voter turnout, weakening the democratic fabric of our nation.

Disinformation campaigns often use tactics that exploit societal divisions, exacerbating tension and conflict to gain traction.

In South Africa’s diverse and complex society, spreading false narratives that pit different groups against one another can worsen polarisation and lead to a more fragmented society. This can manifest in increased social unrest and violence, undermining social cohesion and stability.

Perhaps the most direct impact of disinformation is its potential to influence the outcomes of elections. By spreading false claims about candidates, parties or the electoral process, disinformation can sway public opinion and voter behaviour.

The manipulation can result in the election of candidates who do not genuinely represent the will of the people.

Spotting and Countering Disinformation

Given the dangers posed by disinformation, it is vital for us to be vigilant and proactive at spotting and countering false information as we prepare to vote tomorrow.

Here are a few tips to help navigate the information landscape during the elections:

Verify the source

Always check the credibility of the source before accepting any information as true. Reputable news organisations adhere to journalistic standards and ethics, which makes them more reliable. Be cautious of information from unknown or dubious websites, and always cross-reference with other reliable sources.

Look for original reporting

Disinformation often relies on second-hand accounts or misinterpretations. Original reporting, where journalists have conducted interviews or first-hand investigations, is generally more reliable. Look for articles that reference direct quotes, official documents or first-hand accounts.

Check the facts

Use fact-checking websites and services to verify the authenticity of the information. Organisations such as AfricaCheck and Media Monitoring Africa, with platforms like Real411, work to debunk false claims and provide accurate information. Make use of these resources to verify election-related news and report disinformation to these platforms if you come across it.

Watch out for the politics

Beware of disinformation spread by political parties or figures. Political campaigns are notorious for stretching the truth to gain an edge, so approach their claims with a healthy dose of scepticism. Play it safe and check the information spread by parties.

Diversify your information consumption

Social media algorithms are designed to show you content similar to what you've previously engaged with, which can create echo chambers that reinforce your existing beliefs. To avoid this, actively seek out a variety of news sources, including those with different political perspectives. This will help you gain a more balanced understanding of events and reduce the likelihood of being misled by one-sided information. Part of this is also understanding how much parties spend on their social media campaigns as this may influence the amount of content you see from a specific party. Websites like the Political Ad Library can help with this.

Be wary of emotional appeals

Disinformation often uses strong emotional appeals to manipulate readers. If a piece of news elicits a strong emotional reaction, such as anger or fear, take a moment to pause and critically assess the content. Emotional manipulation is a key tactic in spreading false information.

Understand the context

Information taken out of context can be misleading. Ensure that you understand the broader context of the news story, including the background and the surrounding circumstances. Contextual information can often clarify ambiguities and prevent misunderstandings.

Educate yourself and others

Raising awareness about the dangers of disinformation is crucial. Educate yourself and others about how to identify and counter false information.

Raising awareness about the dangers of disinformation is crucial. Educate yourself and others about how to identify and counter false information.

As we get ready to vote, we must safeguard the integrity of the electoral process against the corrosive effects of disinformation.

By staying informed, vigilant and proactive, citizens can play a crucial role in ensuring that their democracy remains robust and resilient. Let us all strive to be informed and responsible voters, contributing to a fair and transparent electoral process.

* Alberts is a Master's student in Political Science and a research associate at the Centre for Research on Democracy (CREDO) at Stellenbosch University. This is a slightly adapted version of her article in Credo’s latest newsletter, “Democracy Delivered”.

Cape Times