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African elections under rising threat from online disinformation

By Mahnoor Mahar

In an unprecedented year for elections in Africa, the increasing use of digital disinformation poses a rising threat to democracy across the continent, researchers warn today.

New evidence shows that politicians have been undertaking increasingly sophisticated digital disinformation campaigns. Designed to intentionally disseminate false information on platforms such as Facebook and X, the campaigns are increasingly using tactics such as trolls, cyborgs and bots to disrupt debate and drown out dissent.

For example, the research reveals that during the 2021 elections in Uganda, campaigns were deployed that shared doctored images, falsified videos and untrue text to pollute democratic debate. During Angola’s election in 2022, malicious hashtag campaigns were intentionally generated and designed to smear the opposition candidate.

These are the findings from a new open-access book ‘Digital Disinformation in Africa: Hashtag Politics, Power and Propaganda’ – the first dedicated to digital disinformation in Africa – from the African Digital Rights Network, hosted by the Institute of Development Studies.

The authors acknowledge that disinformation in politics in Africa predates the digital era, using traditional press and TV media. However, the rapid expansion of access to mobile internet and to social media, combined with big data from platforms such as Facebook, Google and X, enabling the micro-targeting of millions of citizens with different messages for specific demographic groups, or individuals, has dramatically increased the reach and impact of digital disinformation across the African continent.

After analysing disinformation operations in ten different countries, the researchers found that the digital disinformation campaigns are increasingly targeting specific audience types, such as preying on younger voters to manipulate beliefs and behaviour. They are also being used by authoritarian states alongside tactics to shrink online civic space and hamper social movements’ organising, such as internet and SMS shutdowns.

Dr Tony Roberts, Research Fellow, Institute of Development Studies, and co-editor of Digital Disinformation in Africa: Hashtag Politics, Power and Propaganda, said:

“For elections to be free and fair, voters need to be able to access information that they can trust but in the wild west of social media platforms, citizens can no longer always believe what they see.

“We are witnessing a troubling rise in the volume and of the sophistication of digital disinformation campaigns, with the advances in big data and microtargeting, enabling Cambridge Analytica style companies to orchestrate operations to disrupt democracy.

“There are 17 elections due to take place in Africa this year and the fear is that digital disinformation will distort every one of them.”

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Edmilson Angelo, Postgraduate Researcher, Institute of Development Studies and author of research on online disinformation in Angola, said:

“There has been very little research on online politics in African countries, and even less so in Angola. What I’ve found is that young Angolans are making creative use of online spaces, through memes. But to match this, politicians are making use of social media to spread disinformation to influence citizens under 35 – who represent 78 per cent of Angola’s population.”

The research findings look beyond election campaigns to raise broader questions about the closing spaces for democratic debate. Digital disinformation campaigns have also been found to knowingly spread false information to skew policy debates on issues including vaccinations, immigration and reproductive rights.

From the evidence gathered, the researchers recommend a range of measures to help protect citizens from digital disinformation and to better equip democratic actors to exercise, defend and expand democratic freedoms and rights. These recommendations include calling on civil society organisations to form alliances to produce trustworthy information, support fact-checking and digital literacy efforts, call on the media to ensure fact-checking information before publication, whether online or offline and call on social media platforms to step up their efforts on information correction, content moderation and algorithms that understand different African languages better.

The book features studies from ten countries in Africa: Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Ethiopia, South Africa, DRC, Cameroon, Uganda, Angola, Kenya and Nigeria.

Case study examples from the book

Uganda

In Uganda, there was evidence of violations of human rights and digital authoritarianism – blocking websites and SMS use – ahead of the 2021 elections. Various political campaigns used hashtag campaigns to share disinformation to suit their own interests, and fake accounts and the use of misleading imagery were widespread. This was also the election that Bobi Wine and his campaign employed a range of social media hashtag campaigns to gather popular support, which spread within Uganda and beyond its borders.

Angola

Ahead of the 2022 general election in Angola, where 36 per cent of the population is online, and 85 per cent of those on Facebook, the ruling party deliberately deployed digital disinformation to smear the political opposition’s Presidential candidate, Adalberto Costa Junior. These included the hashtag campaigns #IsACJreallyAnEngineer? designed to spread the false claim that he had lied about his academic qualifications.

South Africa

Despite concerns of Russian interference during South Africa’s last general election (2019), analysis found that it was prolific homegrown disinformation campaigns on social media that played a significant role. Between 2017 and 2019, the wealthy Gupta family – with close ties to Jacob Zuma – hired UK PR firm Bell Pottinger to create over 100 fake accounts on Twitter, pushing out at least 185,000 posts – with a notable element of disinformation. One example was the hashtag campaign #Jonasisaliar fabricated by the fake accounts to spread false information to discredit then Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas.

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