Globally, the year 2024 has been hailed as an extraordinary year – not just an election year, but rather the election year.

This is because, for the first time in recent history and as reported by Democracy Without Borders, the electorate in over 70 countries worldwide are set to head to the polls to cast their votes and choose a government of their liking, in what is said to be a historic feat whose consequences will reverberate throughout the years to come. Some of these countries include India, Indonesia, Mexico, the United States of America, the European Union, and of course, South Africa.

Without a doubt, it can be said that this sheer number of countries holding elections reflects the potential of democracy as a form of government as elections are a key component of democratic systems, providing citizens with the opportunity to participate in the decision-making process and choose their representatives.

While this widespread occurrence of national elections indicates that many countries value the principles of democracy as a form of governance, there are potential challenges that may overshadow or cast doubt on the freeness and fairness of these elections. Some of these challenges include political instability, voter suppression, as well as misinformation and disinformation.

Naturally, the specific challenges will vary depending on the individual country's political and social context, however, the challenge of misinformation and disinformation is most likely to reverberate throughout these countries including our very own South Africa which is to hold its 7th democratic elections this year, the same year that the country is celebrating 30 years of democratic governance.

This is further corroborated by the study conducted by the World Economic Forum titled ‘The 2024 Global Risks Report’, which it reports that misinformation and disinformation are among the leading global risks in the world for the next two years. This phenomenon of manipulation of information ranks at the top of the top 10 list of global risks, followed by extreme weather events and societal polarization, which occupy number two and three respectively on the list.

Notably, this would not be the first time that South Africa is engulfed by the challenge of misinformation and disinformation, usually around the time of a national event/occurrence such as the COVID-19 pandemic but most importantly during an election period. These false and/or misleading narratives pose a threat to the exercise of various rights and access to constitutional protections, including freedom of expression, access to credible information, and the freedom to make informed political choices, while also hampering social cohesion.

In the lead-up to the 2019 elections in South Africa and after, there were elaborate and seemingly well-coordinated campaigns of disinformation and smear campaigns targeting various political parties, leaders, and even the Independent Electoral Commission of South Africa (IEC) which oversees the entire elections process. (IEC). These tactics aimed to sow division, create confusion, erode trust in public institutions, and ultimately influence voter choices in favour of certain candidates or parties. In many instances, the disinformation is always either coupled with or rooted in hate speech.

A primary example of such an incident is the well-known case of Twitter (now X) user “Tracy Zille”, who ran a Twitter account masquerading as a white South African where false and derogatory comments were made against Black women in an attempt to mislead and sow racial discord. This turned out to be a “burner” account allegedly run by Anthony Matumba, an Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) councillor who works at the Makhado local municipality in Limpopo. The account was used to relentlessly spread disinformation and what the SAHRC is convinced meets the threshold of hate speech, targeting Black women including those who are politically active.

The matter was taken to the Equality Court at the Magistrate’s Court held at Louis Trichardt in Makhado, Limpopo, where the SAHRC argued that the posts, published between June and August of 2020, constitute harassment as per section 1 of the Equality Act.

The SAHRC sought relief when Matumba was to apologise and clarify his identity on Twitter, pay a fine of R20 000 to a charity dealing with Gender-Based Violence, and do 80 hours of community service. The respondent (Matumba) vehemently denied being the owner and/or user of the “Tracy Zille” account. Though the accused may have denied culpability on his part, and the case itself not yet concluded, the intended damage of misleading the public and sowing division by race-baiting had already been done.

While on this point, it is important to mention that at this current juncture, South Africa does not have a law that solely prohibits and punishes disinformation – unless it is couched with language or action that may meet the threshold of hate speech under the Promotion of Equality Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act where a person or group of people can then be taken the Equality Court to answer for their alleged transgressions. The only instance where false, misleading content intentionally shared to mislead the public was prohibited was during the COVID-19 pandemic, under the Disaster Management Act, unrelated to elections.

This is due in part or largely to South Africa’s history of suppressing certain people’s thoughts, ideas, and speech solely based on their racial classification. When the apartheid regime was defeated, the government of democracy vouched to guarantee, respect, and ensure that all South Africans enjoy the right to freely express themselves in however way they wish to, granted it does not contravene the Constitution or infringe on the next person’s rights.

In addition, there is yet another take that took place in recent years which got tongues wagging and went on to highlight the intersection between disinformation and defamation. Though not explicitly linked to elections or occurred during an election period, the case involves former and active political players who respectively enjoy a great amount of following while also commanding equal public respect. The case is that of former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel and Julius Malema, leader of the EFF – the third largest political organisation in South Africa.

In 2019, the EFF shared false, inaccurate, and defamatory statements against Trevor Manuel. The tweet arose from the recommendation of the Nugent Commission of Inquiry for the removal of the former Commissioner of the South African Revenue Service (SARS), and the appointment of a replacement. Manuel was the chair of the panel tasked to lead the process of finding a suitable candidate to recommend as the replacement. Due to his prior professional relationship with one of the candidates, Edward Kieswetter, Manuel recused himself from that one interview. Ultimately, Kieswetter was recommended by the panel as the preferred candidate and appointed by the President as the Commissioner of SARS.

As a response to this, the EFF released a statement where alleged disparaging and misleading comments were made against both Manuel and Kieswetter. To seek relief, Manuel approached the court “to vindicate his good name and reputation”. In its judgment, the court found that indeed the EFF’s statement was defamatory, as the tweet implied that Manuel was dishonest, unscrupulous, and lacking in integrity, meaning that they are also at fault for spreading false narratives vis-à-vis disinformation.

The case of the South African elections is not the only example of how disinformation and smear campaigns have been used to influence elections. Similar tactics have been used in countries around the world, including the United States, Brazil, and the Philippines. The rise of this phenomenon poses a serious threat to democracy. It is essential to find ways to combat these tactics and to ensure that voters have access to accurate and reliable information. Among others, this would involve a multifaceted approach, including media literacy programs, fact-checking initiatives, and efforts by social media platforms to curb the spread of false information. It should be acknowledged that the issue of misinformation and disinformation is complex and that there is no easy solution to this challenge. However, by raising awareness and taking action, States, citizens, and technology platforms can help to mitigate the harmful effects of these tactics and ensure that elections are free and fair.

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