One such challenge is that of the information disorder, which has come to characterise the post Covid-19 moment we find ourselves in because of living in the digital age. In recent years, South Africa has enjoyed a rise in technological advancement and internet penetration that have completely upended the ways people interact, communicate, and access information about each other and the world around us. This was most-aptly proved particularly during the COVID-19 lockdowns, where technology and access to the internet were pivotal in enabling much-needed access to vital information about health, but also to education, work, and importantly, the 2021 local elections which were held under lockdown regulations during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. This information disorder is characterised by these three elements: mal-information, misinformation, and disinformation, coupled with online-facilitated hate speech and incitement to violence.

What is the Information Disorder Challenge?

What then are these phenomena of mal-information, misinformation, disinformation and hate speech, and how do they converge or differ? Further thereto, what kind of threat(s) do they pose to the integrity and credibility of the upcoming elections, and the proper functioning of South Africa’s maturing democracy?

Of these phenomena, mal-information is the least known among the population, most likely due to the infrequent nature of this kind of action, especially among the South African public. Universally, by civil society organisations, policymakers, and government, mal-information is defined as the intentional sharing of factual/genuine information, usually personal and/or privately held information, through leaks or otherwise into the public arena, with the intention of harassing and/or inciting harm against an individual or group of people. This includes the sharing of people’s home, work, and email addresses, cell phone numbers, names of children, parents, and/or spouses as well as private communications between them and others, with the intention of harassing them and rallying people to be violent against them.

A most popular example of this action in South Africa is when two months before the sixth general elections of May 2019, Julius Malema, president of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the third largest political party in Parliament – sent out what proved to be a dangerous tweet on March 5, to his 2.3 million followers. The tweet contained the late veteran journalist Karima Brown’s personal phone number in a screen grab of a message she mistakenly sent to a WhatsApp group for EFF media statements, and accused her of sending “moles” to a breakfast the EFF was hosting the following day.

As a result, Karima Brown was subjected to an onslaught of graphic messages on her social media accounts, as well as her phone through voice and WhatsApp messages, many threatening her rape and murder. To add salt to injury, a host of racially charged messages threatened to expose her flesh by peeling her skin off, according to a report she gave to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Even when other journalists and human rights activists came to her defence, the abuse shifted from her to them, where they were also subjected to a torrent of online abuse and harassment from accounts purportedly in support of Malema and the EFF. This act of online-facilitated violence has offline consequences, where journalists are compelled to self-censor, are afraid to appear in public events for either work or personal reasons, and thus wholly infringes on the right to freedom of expression, among others. Suffice to say, this greatly undermines elections and poses a threat to the functioning of democracy.

Further to the mal-information phenomena during an election period and after is that of disinformation. The High Level Expert Group on Fake News and Online Disinformation of the European Commission defines disinformation as “all forms of false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted to intentionally cause public harm or for profit”, and this definition is the same in other official and non-official documents and jurisdictions. This is the most popular of the three elements of the information disorder, finding expression in most of the social media platforms and online space in general. South Africa is not spared from this either, where in many instances, disinformation carries with it elements of hate speech or is spread to advocate hatred and cause harm on the prohibited grounds, thus perpetuating hate speech.

Hate speech – as amended by the Constitutional Court judgment in the landmark case of Qwelane v South African Human Rights Council and Another – is the “advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender, religion, sexual orientation or any other ground and that constitutes incitement to cause harm”.

The existence of Operation Dudula aptly depicts this convergence between disinformation and hate speech. Originally a social media campaign that has become an umbrella for mobilisation of violent protests, vigilante violence, and arson targeting migrant-owned homes and businesses, and even the murder of foreign nationals. They have now morphed into a political party, with intentions to contest the 2024 national elections. This organisation on repeated occasions has spread xenophobic and discriminatory messaging online and further encouraged people to mete out violence against “illegal” foreign nationals.

Lastly, there is then misinformation. This is universally understood and accepted to mean the creation of false, misleading information/content distributed with no intention to cause harm. How it differs from disinformation is that it is the sharing of information without the intention of causing public harm or for the purposes of economic gain.

There are a number of different types of misinformation and/or disinformation that can be spread during an election campaign. Some common examples include:

· False or misleading claims about candidates' qualifications, records, or positions on issues.

· False or misleading claims about the voting process or election procedures.

· False or misleading claims about the consequences of voting for or against a particular candidate.

· False or misleading claims about the legitimacy of the election itself.

How Can We Respond to the Information Disorder Challenge?

The overcoming of these challenges is an urgent imperative to safeguard the credibility of elections and further protect the gains of democracy. For this to happen, a multistakeholder approach ought to be the avenue used to respond to these challenges. This means that civil society organisations, working together with government departments/agencies and the private sector, including tech/social media platforms and internet service providers ought to collectively devise strategies and support one other in efforts to mitigate these challenges.

In South Africa, we have already seen this happening, where Media Monitoring Africa together with the Independent Electoral Commission, Meta, Google, and TikTok signed an MOU to collectively monitor and combat online harms during the election period, as well as capacitate journalists on fact-checking and verification methods. Further, the IEC partners with SANEF to train editors and journalists on the role of the media in an election. There are many other partnerships/collaborations of this nature, including that of the Film and Publications Board (FPB) with the IEC to ensure the integrity of the upcoming elections.

Some of the key areas that ought to be and in some instances are covered by the multistakeholder approach include, but not limited to:

· Build the capacity of journalists and editors on fact-checking and information verification as it pertains to the elections.

· Work closely with civil society organisations doing work on fact-checking and countering disinformation, such as Africa Check, Media Monitoring Africa’s REAL411 programme and other such organisations and initiatives.

· Regularly report and run shows on disinformation campaigns and their effect on the democratic process, human rights, and democracy at large.

· Always rely on results from official election officials who are mandated to do so. The collation and counting of election results can take longer than anticipated. Wait for the official results; do not fall into the enticing trap of speculation.

In conclusion, disinformation has, in many jurisdictions affected the integrity, credibility, and even outcome of elections, as evinced by the Cambridge Analytica saga that won Donald Trump the United States of America elections, making him president. As stressed in the article, to avoid this unwanted situation in our upcoming South African elections in 2024, it is of utmost importance that we all come together as different stakeholders and collectively work towards combatting disinformation. This will ensure that people have access to credible, verifiable information to allow them to make informed decisions about which political parties or candidates they wish to rally behind in the elections.