Many of the 20 million social media users in South Africa are likely to be influenced by internal and external actors in the build-up to the 2019 elections.
In response, an innovative new project has been launched to engage young citizens in democratic processes ahead of next year’s election and detect organised interference from domestic and foreign parties on social and traditional online media aimed at sowing further division in South Africa to manipulate the election outcome.
South Africa’s 2019 election faces unprecedented challenges including, escalating conflict between and within political parties, growing disillusionment with democracy and declining voter registration and participation. This is made worse by a stagnant economy, youth unemployment and a shrinking job market framed by historical oppression and acute inequality.
If that isn’t enough, social media has recently ushered in a return to popularism in the US, Brazil and elsewhere, and has led to undue third-party interference and sinister influences in recent election outcomes.
All indications are that South Africa will not be immune to this growing and dangerous global trend, which poses a threat to next year’s national election. Engagement on social media around election issues offer as much opportunity for good as it does for bad.
“It’s up to us, to get the good in social media to counter the bad. The good people on social media outnumber the bad many times over, it’s time to put this advantage to use and strike back at regressive forces. Besides, it’s an opportunity to remind ourselves what we committed to when we adopted our constitution in 1996,” said Stuart Jones, of the Citizen Dialogue Centre.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found 18 elections were manipulated by social media in 2017. Even the ANC’s 2017 December election was a target with around 140 bots mobilised during the election.
“Social media allows us to rally reason and understanding to engage prejudice and counter its negative influence on the social media narrative that influenced recent elections in many parts of the world,” said Jones.
This is achieved through advanced analytics, targeted social media communication and growing online communities. It fosters constructive social media dialogue, as well as exposing and countering the dangerous rise of fake news and alternative facts.
The Citizen Dialogue and Research Centre in partnership with the Centre for Analytics and Behaviour Change (CABC NPO) are launching two programmes ahead of the elections. One encourages active citizenship and the other to protect the integrity of our elections in 2019 from foreign and domestic interference.
Both organisations have recently researched and worked with social media analytics, machine learning and artificial intelligence capabilities and how they can be used to enhance social justice, human rights and peacemaking.
“This is pioneering, cutting-edge work, representing a world first. While we already have several partnerships, we need support from civil society, government and business for this work to have a further and lasting impact,” said Camaren Peter of the CABC.