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Johannesburg - As South Africa's 2019 general elections draws closer, the Electoral Commission of SA (IEC) is bracing itself for social media trolls and internet bots.

Deputy CEO Nomsa Masuku said the electoral body had to appoint a team during the 2016 local elections to monitor social media sites. 

''Towards the 2014 elections, all we did was to augment our presence in all media spaces. Going into 2015, we started seeing disinformation, and in 2016 at the results operations centre, we placed a team whose only job was to watch social media platforms and check on posts that might, in a way, cast aspersions on elections and those of us involved in the processes. The team's work was very successful,'' Masuku said at a discussion on social media and electioneering, held in Johannesburg.

The IEC expects ''vicious discourse''  ahead of the elections. Masuku said people would be resorting to ''all manner of tactics'' in order to make their point heard.

''People are going to throw out anything in order to inflame emotions. We expect a lot of that. What worries the IEC is that the anger will be directed at the commission because we are really an easy target...we are a sitting duck. We encounter people taking opinion as fact all the time...for example that the IEC is run by 'comrades', or that it is captured. We are called captured all the time on social media, it also happened in 2016.''

Masuku said attempts have been made to discredit the commission and also to hack into the IEC system.

''We are preparing ourselves for the onslaught on our reputation. If the entity that runs the elections is discredited, that is half the battle won. Anything that comes after that doesn't matter. Attempts have been made to discredit the election body itself, including hacking our system...election management bodies are vulnerable.''

The USA elections last year that saw Donald Trump emerging victorious prompted the IEC to start considering how to deal with political campaigning. 

''We started conversations with political parties. The IEC has party liaison committees, which are a statutory bodies. But at this stage, we are not yet there in terms of managing that space in the face of the cyber attacks we are facing. Political party code of conduct allows the IEC to deal with matters such as spreading false information and only binds parties that are competing in an election.''

However, the IEC does not have capacity to track political campaigning. It had hoped that such task would be undertaken by the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) or the Advertising Standards Authority, which is now under liquidation, she said.

''There is a problem around political campaigning, it remains this broad space and there is no dedicated resources to ensure that people do not veer away from what is acceptable. Political parties to agree and sign a code of conduct...they do not give guarantee at all that they would behave when the rubber hits the tar.''

Lawyer Avani Singh said other countries have come up with mechanisms allowing citizens to check up suspicious information.

''In countries such as Belgium, websites and resources are created that allow people to list all the misinformation and verify if one is skeptical about certain information. In Italy, there are portals established where misinformation campaigns are reported, and followed up by authorities who run a campaign countering such misinformation. There are quite a number of ways to deal with false information, but the effective one is where authorities, media, communities and academics come together through joint responses." 

Masuku said the IEC not only guards against online trolls, but possible physical harm on its staffers. The electoral body increases security around staff and commissioners during elections, she said.

''We have had to change a voting station because of community anger. We increased security at the national IEC office as we become vulnerable. People believe that the only way to get attention is to get to those who run the elections.''

Tech journalist Adam Oxford said although Facebook and Twitter had been successful in shutting down bots in recent times, it remains to be seen what would happen in the next few months leading up to the elections. Internet bots are software applications that are used online for both legitimate and malicious purposes. Hackers use bots to perform repetitive automated tasks online at a very high rate, which is impossible for a human to achieve.

African News Agency/ANA