Disinformation and Its Impact on Society: A Case Study from South Africa

Disinformation and Its Impact on Society: A Case Study from South Africa

Disinformation can also have less immediately visible but equally dangerous results that undermine democracy by distorting public discourse and interfering with democratic decision-making. Furthermore, because disinformation has polluted online channels of communication in Africa and beyond, fundamental digital rights such as freedom of expression, information, and privacy in the digital age are increasingly under threat.

By: Gift Agboro, 2019-2020 Open Internet for Democracy Leader

In 2018, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) reported that “for the first time, more than half of the world’s population is using the internet.” This growth has profoundly changed how citizens operate socially, economically, and politically. However, the rise of global internet usage has also facilitated the proliferation of disinformation, eroding democracy online. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), disinformation, often taking form as “fake news,” refers to “information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organization or country.”

Studies show that the threat of disinformation has only increased around the globe. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), fake news spreads faster than real news. To underscore AAAS’ findings, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology examined true and false news stories posted on Twitter from the social media platform’s founding year in 2006 through 2017. The study found that “false claims were 70 percent more likely than the truth to be shared on Twitter. True stories were rarely retweeted by more than 1,000 people, but the top 1 percent of false stories were routinely shared by 1,000 to 100,000 people. And it took true stories about six times as long as false ones to reach 1,500 people.”

South Africa Case Study on Disinformation

Disinformation’s harmful impacts can also be seen across sub-Saharan Africa. In September 2019, tensions escalated as news of xenophobic attacks targeting foreign-owned shops and stores in South Africa spread across various online media platforms. The presumed xenophobic attacks in South Africa led citizens of other African countries, such as Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Zambia, to retaliate. For instance, news reports highlighted that demonstrators in the DRC's second largest city, Lubumbashi, broke the windows of South Africa's consulate.  In Zambia, students in Lusaka forced the closure of several South African-owned shopping malls.

Fact-checking organizations subsequently reported that most of the videos and pictures that went viral either did not exist or they had taken place years ago. According to TIME, “matters were compounded by the spread of fake news and images claiming that Nigerians were targeted in the attacks, which incited mobs in Nigeria to attack South African-owned businesses in reprisal. While the death toll in South Africa has reached double-digits, it does not appear that any Nigerians were among the casualties.”

Strategies to Push Back Against the Spread of Disinformation

Disinformation can also have less immediately visible but equally dangerous results that undermine democracy by distorting public discourse and interfering with democratic decision-making. Furthermore, because disinformation has polluted online channels of communication in Africa and beyond, fundamental digital rights such as freedom of expression, information, and privacy in the digital age are increasingly under threat.  

To address the proliferation of disinformation, awareness is key. To help educate citizens to identify fake news on the internet, a reporter for the Huffington Post provided a helpful checklist for internet users when reading online news articles: 

1. Read past the headline.

2. Check what news outlet that published it.

3. Check the date and time of publication.

4. Who is the author?

5. Look at what links and sources are used.

6. Look out for questionable quotes and photos.

7. Beware of confirmation bias.

8. Search if other news outlets are reporting it.

9. Think before you share.

Finally, it is important to encourage representatives from local business communities, civil society organizations, and independent media to advocate for policies that seek to curb disinformation on a local or regional level. Digital rights advocates, for instance, can engage with media entities and technology companies, whose platforms host a number of disinformation cases, to take appropriate counter-measures and invest in fact-checking tools. The Open Internet for Democracy Advocacy Playbook also serves as a resource that provides practical strategies for citizens seeking to push back against the spread of disinformation by advocating for digital rights essential for democracy to survive – and thrive – online.