Will platforms actually safeguard people and elections? Reflections from the South African ballot.

By Bulanda T. Nkhowani

On 29 May 2024, millions of South Africans voted in the most contested general election since the country’s independence. For the first time in three decades, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) party has suffered a stunning blow, getting a little over 40% of votes, raising questions about who it will govern with. But with disinformation about vote rigging still circulating on social media, the ballot also prompts another question: Have tech platforms done enough to safeguard South Africa’s democracy? 

The lead-up to the ballot had been marred by political killings, threats of violence and rampant disinformation on social media. And this time around, the digital threats to South Africa’s democracy seem to have been more pronounced than in previous years, with conspiracy theories about vote rigging spreading far and wide. 

Already months before the vote, politicians and bad actors had been spreading disinformation, undermining the impartiality of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and seeking to create distrust in the electoral process. At the forefront of peddling the vote-rigging allegations was the newly formed uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party, led by ex-president Jacob Zuma, who was ousted from the ANC in 2018 amid allegations of corruption. Jacob Zuma’s daughter, Duduzile Zuma Sambudla, an influential political supporter, emerged as a superspreader of disinformation about vote rigging by the IEC. Days before the elections, her X/Twitter feed was full of posts attacking the credibility of the IEC and alleging that the Commission was conspiring to allocate votes to the governing ANC party. 

“The ANC Of Ramaphosa Has Already Started Stealing Votes In KZN,” Zuma Sambudla tweeted on 25 May, referring to the vote rigging in the coastal province of Kwa-Zulu Natal, where the MK party won most of the votes. The post, which was viewed by over 640 thousand people, was shared 1.5 thousand times. 

The conspiracy theory quickly gained further traction online and offline, with other political parties jumping on the bandwagon. Murmur, a data science group, picked up over 150,000 posts about the IEC and vote rigging on social media. This includes tweets alleging vote rigging, post-ballot.  

The vote-rigging narrative emerged months before the election, with the MK party threatening violence if these allegations were not addressed or if the election did not go their way. This begs the question, what did tech platforms do to prevent such harmful narratives from spreading and potentially undermining democracy?

Prior to the elections, civil society groups sounded the alarm about the potential for tech harms like hate speech and disinformation to undermine South Africa’s democracy and spur political violence or even attacks on migrants. Calls that were not met with equal effort and commitment from the tech platforms. 

In April 2024 Meta and TikTok issued blog posts highlighting their plans to stamp out harmful content and disinformation, collaborate with the IEC, fact-checkers and ‘empower’ voters with media literacy in a bid to secure platform integrity. Of course, X/Twitter was missing from this party. It is no wonder that harmful posts have remained on the platform.

While platforms signed non-legally binding cooperation agreements with the IEC to combat disinformation and hate speech, it is clear that these efforts coupled with the shifting of responsibility to the users were not enough. 

And the platforms’ responses to requests for detailed election plans by public interest law firm Legal Resource Center raise questions about the companies’ commitment to democracy in Global Majority countries – Meta, Google and TikTok said they’re not bound by local right to information laws. 

Looking ahead to the other elections in the region, the Global Coalition for Tech Justice partners have warned that big tech companies are already failing to counter the spread of falsehoods, which may undermine democracy in Mozambique this October. And in Ghana, AI-generated disinformation has become a pressing problem ahead of the December general elections, with tensions rising and disinformation containing threats targeting political candidates.

We need the companies to be more open and transparent about their planned measures ahead, during and after each election, and commit to implementing the measures in a participatory, timely manner that respects human rights. Platforms should commit to safeguarding voters and elections, without averting responsibility, throughout the election cycle by implementing sufficient guardrails, including relevant break-glass measures.

As South Africans wait to see who becomes the next President, they continue to grapple with disinformation about vote rigging. With more elections on the horizon in the region, one can only hope that the platforms are taking notes and learning their lessons.

Share this post