2. Assessing the trends of propaganda and disinformation ahead of May 29 Elections

Since the proclamation of the election date by the President (on 20 February 2024), there has been a rapid increase in the dissemination of information online. SA citizens have witnessed an unprecedented increase in negative social media engagements, dissemination of election-related propaganda and disinformation. Unknown and known Twitter (X) accounts have been promoting political agendas, influencing people's opinions and beliefs to online users as we are getting closer to voting day. Recently there has been an uproar regarding the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) adverts which display the Democratic Alliance burning the South African flag which has been interpreted negatively by X users and manipulated to be racial and unpatriotic.[1]

The nation has also seen disinformation spread about the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), with peaks relating to specific events and stories. An increase in false content suggested the process wasn’t fair and that the IEC had prejudged candidates or parties. This information circulated mainly on Twitter and WhatsApp groups.

The potential ineligibility of former South African President Jacob Zuma to stand for election has caused escalating tensions on social media. Regrettably, these tensions have resulted in unjustified and unprecedented attacks against officials, specifically Deputy Chair of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), Commissioner Janet Love.

The attacks levied against Commissioner Love were manipulative and aimed at discrediting her and the IEC. Those responsible claimed that Commissioner Love was a long-serving, loyal member of the African National Congress (ANC) and that her appointment to her position was due to President Cyril Ramaphosa's partisan grounds. However, it must be noted that Commissioner Love ceased her ANC membership in 2009 when she joined the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC). Since then, she has enjoyed multi-party support for her appointment as IEC commissioner.

It is imperative to note that there is no evidence to suggest that Commissioner Love has demonstrated preferential treatment towards the ANC or any other political party in her role as IEC commissioner. Nevertheless, some users have called for her resignation based on unfounded allegations. As a result, the IEC was compelled to issue a statement to correct this narrative.

These attacks on Commissioner Love and the IEC are unwarranted and do not withstand scrutiny. It is crucial to uphold the integrity of the electoral process, and this includes refraining from baseless accusations against officials who serve to ensure a fair and transparent election.

Furthermore, another uproar arose alleging that the current president of South Africa had sought to rig the elections by bribing the IEC. The tweets alleged that the five national commissioners of the national office of the Electoral Commission were bought or bribed. Although the tweets were not persuasive enough and lacked substance, there were fears that the public could believe the disinformation and could be dissuaded from voting.

Several countries, including Brazil, India, and Nigeria, have encountered their first "WhatsApp election" where rumors, conjectures, and falsehoods were swiftly spread through social media channels. The dissemination of such information during the electoral process purportedly had a detrimental impact on the democratic process. By studying the experiences of these countries, valuable insights can be gleaned into the role of social media in elections. During the Nigerian presidential election of 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari was forced to deny reports of his death and replacement by a clone.[2]

3. Strategies to counter propaganda and disinformation: What South African citizens must know ahead of the elections

The content moderation of different forms of content on social media platforms is predominantly conducted using algorithmic tools such as automated filters and machine learning models. While these tools are efficient in processing large amounts of content, they fall short of adequately addressing nuances such as content shared in deep native South African languages. Therefore, a simple and key mechanism to utilise in countering disinformation and propaganda is to encourage the public to report any potential propaganda and disinformation to the social media platforms they have posted.

Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) have implemented various initiatives to counteract propaganda and disinformation. For example, the Real411 platform allows users to report inaccurate and misleading information. Africa Check is another valuable platform that the public can use during elections to verify information and ensure accuracy. These platforms play a crucial role in combating disinformation spread on social media and other platforms.

South African laws prohibit propaganda and disinformation. Section 89(2) of the Electoral Act 73 of 1998 and section 69(2) of the Local Government: Municipal Electoral Act 27 of 2000 prohibit the dissemination of false information with the intention of, amongst others, influencing the conduct and outcome of an election. Additionally, the Electoral Code of Conduct under the Electoral Act prohibits registered political parties or candidates from disseminating false or defamatory information concerning elections and from generally abusing their position of power, privilege, or influence to affect the outcome of an election. Government communicators, public servants, and state-financed media are also prohibited, through various regulations, from disseminating information that promotes or prejudices one political party over another.

The existing provisions against disinformation are extensive and encompassing. However, the complexities of technology present numerous uncertainties that demand attention. A case in point is the emergence of cyber troops and digital influencers in South Africa. These groups, constituted of both human operators and automated bots, have gained prominence in the country's electoral contexts. Unfortunately, there are legal gaps that do not consider such developments. Furthermore, it remains unclear whether the safeguards established in the legislation extend to the dissemination of partisan messaging. Such messaging may not be inherently false but has the potential to mislead online users. As such, further legal considerations and clarifications are necessary to address these concerns.

Utilising regional mechanisms to address disinformation in South Africa

At the UN level UNESCO has adopted some guidelines on 'Journalism, fake news & disinformation: a handbook for journalism education and training 'these guidelines seek to help member states with strategies and tools to address disinformation. In addition, regional bodies such as the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights ("ACHPR") and the European Commission have also sought to develop measures that can offer guidance to their member states on combatting disinformation. The IEC in South Africa and other electoral commissions have adopted the ‘Principles and Guidelines for the Use of Digital and Social Media in Elections in Africa.’ The Principles and Guidelines for the Use of Digital and Social Media in Elections in Africa are aimed at enhancing the capacities of Election Management Bodies (EMBs) and other relevant electoral stakeholders to harness the advantages of social media and tackle the adverse effects of new and emerging digital technologies.


To effectively combat disinformation and propaganda during South Africa's upcoming elections, a comprehensive approach is necessary. It requires a combination of algorithmic tools and human expertise to identify and address misleading information that is circulating on digital platforms. However, these tools need to comply with South African laws that require amendment to address emerging issues. To ensure success, it's crucial to engage with key technology companies, media entities, and civil society organizations regularly and publicly. This approach will enable stakeholders to receive the training they need to identify and combat disinformation. The UNESCO Guidelines for Internet Governance advocate for a human rights-based, multistakeholder approach that emphasizes collaboration across all sectors. Therefore, it's crucial to sensitize South African citizens to the law and initiatives during these crucial elections. By doing so, we can ensure that the upcoming elections are free and fair and that citizens can make informed decisions based on accurate information.

Ensuring the fairness and integrity of elections is crucial for democracy. Unfortunately, with the rise of social media, election propaganda and disinformation have become increasingly prevalent. That's why it's important to take action to counter these deceptive tactics. The term "Countering Election Propaganda and Disinformation" refers to the efforts made to combat these harmful practices on social media platforms. By preventing the spread of false information, we can help ensure that elections are decided based on truth, not lies. Let's work together to safeguard our democracy and protect the integrity of our elections.

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[1] UNESCO, ‘Journalism, ‘fake news’ and disinformation’: Handbook for journalism education and training’, (2018) at p 20.

[2] The Africa Report, ‘Africa’s fake news problem’, June 2019.

[3] https://www.iol.co.za/the-star/news/uproar-against-the-das-advertisement-intensifies-as-an-act-of-war-ahead-of-polls-87097441-536b-446c-a94c-9a83c5ba8675