I was privileged enough to attend the final day of the festival, where a lot of solutions were proposed to counter the proliferation of disinformation, misinformation, and a new term that I was introduced to malinformation.

However, the debate centered mostly around the growing issue of disinformation, which continues to be a thorn in our democratic project.

Political disinformation is expected to be high as we head into the much-anticipated 2024 general elections, where a lot of political actors are expected to spread false information in their quest to woo desperate voters.

We have already seen a lot of political misinformation, where some politicians continue to share false information about migrants being the cause of the country’s social ills, and even going as far as making false promises that they will deport all foreigners when they win elections, as that is even possible to achieve.

With technology companies such as Facebook and X (formerly Twitter) seemingly failing to deal decisively with the rising levels of misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation on their platforms, despite their social media platforms being the primary breeding ground of information ills, delegates at the festival spent hours trying to find ways in which different stakeholders can play their role in countering disinformation in our fragile society, where xenophobia seems to be an election selling point.

What are Disinformation and Misinformation?

Oftentimes the two terms: misinformation and disinformation get to be confused to mean the same thing, while it is in their intention that they differ immensely.

“Disinformation is deliberate content which is created to cause harm whereas misinformation is content which is shared without the intent of creating harm,” said Nomshado Lubisi-Nkosinkulu from MMA, who tried to not only distinguish between the two terms but also emphasized the intent, which is very key.

The intent of spreading disinformation is to harm and destroy the lives of innocent people, threaten their livelihoods, and cause disorder in society among other ills. Most importantly, disinformation poses a serious threat to the fruits of our democracy.

We have recently seen how perpetrators of disinformation are now directing their agenda on organizations that are the cornerstone of our democratic order of late.

Civil Society Victimized through Disinformation

Following the Marshalltown fire in Johannesburg in August, which resulted in the loss of lives of children among others, we have seen a coordinated disinformation campaign on social media orchestrated by political actors against civil society organisations.

Organisations such as the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF), Scalabrini Centre, and Socio-Economic Rights Institute (SERI) were targets of disinformation campaigns led by politicians and xenophobic formations.

These organisations, which play a very important role in our democratic order through their work of protecting human rights, holding power to account, and championing the rule of law, were falsely accused of being responsible for having allowed illegal foreigners to live in dilapidated, hijacked, and unsafe buildings in the Johannesburg city centre.

This was a malicious lie that was repeated by the City of Johannesburg politicians including the speaker of the council, Colleen Makhubele, who did not want to take responsibility for having allowed the buildings in the city centre to decay under their watch.

However, the malice was so severe to these organisations, that they faced an onslaught of attacks from xenophobic groups on social media.

The result of that disinformation campaign saw the offices of these organisations being forced to close for weeks due to safety concerns of their staff. The staff, in particular, the executive directors of both the HSF and SERI, who happen to be female, were continuously threatened with violence and harassment on X.

The organisations had to also lock their social media pages, in particular, the comments feeds, because of the online harassment and abuse directed to them by those who had believed the political disinformation campaign.

So, the big question is what should be done to counter the rise of disinformation?

We Need a Campaign to Counter Against the Rise of Disinformation

It will require collective action to fight against the proliferation of disinformation in our society. From the government, civil society organizations, community groups, private sector, and most importantly, every single individual.

A communication campaign led by all the above-mentioned stakeholders aimed at countering the rise of disinformation has never been as urgently needed as it is at this current juncture.

With social media owners having since given up on the fight to counter the rise of disinformation, it is, therefore, up to all of us to lead the fight in countering disinformation.

I am reminded of how the success of the LoveLife campaign was a result of all stakeholders ensuring that the youth are educated about the dangers of HIV and how they can beat the virus by living a positive lifestyle.

We need a campaign in the same mold as the LoveLife campaign, where an educational programme against disinformation will be rolled out nationally.

This will be a campaign that will teach people, in particular the youth, about what disinformation is, its social and political cost, how it poses a danger to human lives and democracy, and most importantly, how we can as individuals take a stand against it.

This campaign, just like the LoveLife campaign, can utilize communication channels such as billboards, door-to-door, and community engagement educational campaigns, and can even be taken to schools, so that the young people, who are easy victims of disinformation, can be able to be taught about the human, social and political cost of disinformation.

The Western Cape Education Department has already started its bid to counter disinformation through its #StoptheShare campaign, where learners are taught and encouraged not to share harmful content on social media.

This is where we can build from, where not only learners but society at large are encouraged to stop sharing information that can easily be harmful to the next person. This is because disinformation thrives on misinformation, and by educating people to stop the share, we will be directly countering disinformation.

I must say that a campaign of this magnitude will require buy-in from all the important stakeholders to work, especially the government, which seems to be content with doing little to counter the disinformation.

There's doubt that the government has the capabilities to fight against disinformation. We have seen, how during Covid-19, it resolved to make it an illegal offence to share and spread false information about the virus.

The same attitude needs to be displayed by the government through working with civil society organisations to recreate the same success achieved in the fight against HIV through the LoveLife campaign.

What is the way Forward?

Civil society organisations such as MMA are currently doing a lot to fight against the rising levels of disinformation through online disinformation countering tools such as Real411. Created to counter disinformation ahead of the 2019 general elections, Real411 is an online tool that provides people with an opportunity to report any form of disinformation that has potential threats to harm and discrimination among others.

While this is an important countering tool against disinformation, it, however, requires people to take action by reporting what they believe is disinformation before they share it with the public. Hence it is paramount that people, especially the youth, who are consumers of online content, be educated about the importance of not sharing harmful content before it can be verified by reputable information verification organisations.

The education part of figuring out what is real or fake information should not be left to media houses and journalists only, but we need to also have more information verification organisations such as AfricaCheck, where people can always verify whether the information is legit before they can share it.

Finally, with social media platforms continuing to be the breeding ground of disinformation, the owners of these platforms must be pressured to take swift action when an account is reported for spreading disinformation.

There need to be strong and strict measures put in place for every account reported on the platforms when it comes to disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation.

Swift actions such as account suspension or removing the perpetrator from the platform should be speedily processed. This will help insofar as ensuring that people know the consequences of spreading harmful content.