3 ways to safeguard elections in Africa

Bulanda Tapiwa Nkhowani Campaigns and Partnerships Manager, Sub-Saharan Africa

As 2024 draws near, Africans want Big Tech platforms to safeguard elections happening in 18 countries on the continent, from big and thriving democracies like Ghana, unpredictable democracies like South Africa and fragile contexts like the Democratic Republic of Congo. Digital Action’s Bulanda Tapiwa Nkhowani, Campaigns and Partnerships Manager, Sub-Saharan Africa, shares key ideas from this season’s tech accountability conferences.

More than 65 elections will be taking place next year, and 18 of them in Africa. Top of mind for politicians, civil society organizations and policymakers is how social media platforms can adversely affect these and how Big Tech can safeguard them. 

In South Africa, social media platforms have become a cesspit of hate speech, with hashtags like #PutSouthAfricansFirst and #ZimbabweansMustFall trending frequently and Facebook, WhatsApp and X (formerly Twitter) posts blaming migrants for South Africa’s socio-economic ills, including lack of access to services, poverty, unemployment and crime. This incited real-life violence, and even murder. And as the 2024 general election approaches, “there is a great potential for and concern that the targeting of immigrants as a political tactic will be mobilised to garner support from dissatisfied South Africans”, a recent report by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change said.

I’ve spent the last month meeting with civil society organisations and activists at the Africa Internet Governance Forum (AfIGF) and the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa (FIFAfrica). Panellists and attendees stressed the need for platforms to provide fully resourced and equitable elections plans that are proportionate to risk and not market size, and it was not surprising that none of the panellists from the 2024 election countries had seen any plans and strategies by platforms for their countries. 

I also hosted a regional meetup for members of the Global Coalition for Tech Justice. The discussions with coalition members, activists, technologists, policymakers, and industry experts focused on what’s at stake for Africa in the era of elections and online harms, and assessing platform risks, safeguards and preparedness for 2024. 

What was clear from most of these engagements was the need for a strong well-coordinated global civil society movement on platform accountability to help address platform failures ahead of the 2024 election tsunami. Do join our Global Coalition for Tech Justice if you want to be part of that movement!

Here are the three recommendations to safeguard elections in Africa in 2024 that came out of all these events:

  • Collaboration between Big Tech and civil society

Concerns continue to grow on how stakeholders, especially tech platforms, will manage incidents of hate speech, dis/misinformation, tech-assisted violence against women, political advertising, internet shutdowns and AI-enabled smear campaigns and disinformation during electoral cycles and in turn ensure electoral integrity. 

The need for a multi-stakeholder approach was highlighted as key to ensuring platform accountability and electoral integrity. However, social media companies were singled out as having greater responsibility in ensuring that their platforms do not aid the creation of new harms or perpetuate existing structural issues that manifest through the use of their technologies. After all, with great power comes great responsibility.

Civil society actors were also keen to combine their strengths and rally together for improved safeguards and policies on social media platforms that address systemic platform failures that are detrimental to democracy and electoral integrity.

  • Build an evidence base of platform failures

Another key recommendation was focused on the role that civil society, fact-checkers, academia and researchers can play through monitoring, documenting, classifying, reporting and proposing solutions to platform failures during the 2024 election cycle. To build a compelling body of evidence of online harms during elections in Africa, activists, fact-checkers and researchers will have to adopt new skills for investigating, documenting and understanding tech harms, including technical skills and know-how on how to access platforms APIs, handling large data sets and accessing ad and content libraries amongst others.

  • Advocate for free access to platform data

Civil society, researchers and fact-checkers will need to navigate barriers and restrictions on accessing bid tech data for large-scale research purposes to understand the relationship between social media and elections. Barriers such as fees for paid access to platform data, restrictions on data access for example by non-US researchers etc. Researchers and civil society organisations will need to continue advocating for big tech data to be made more accessible by platforms while at the same time moving away from relying on the goodwill of platforms to provide data access to creating independent research infrastructure as a long-term solution.

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