Social media under scrutiny in South African polls

In South Africa’s upcoming elections on May 29, technology companies are under fire for refusing to share detailed plans to prevent the use of social media to incite the public.

This and fears about fake news are a concern among some stakeholders who argue that open access platforms such as Tiktok, Facebook and X could fuel the problem.

In 2021, a wave of violence swept through South Africa, resulting in more than 300 deaths following a high court’s decision to jail former president Jacob Zuma for contempt of court.

The situation escalated when social media platforms were found to have played a significant role in fueling violence by amplifying inciting posts, as confirmed by the South African Human Rights Commission in January 2024.

As the country prepares for upcoming elections, concerns about possible political violence loom large. However, tech giants such as Meta (owners of Facebook, Instagram and Threads), TikTok and Google refuse to share detailed election plans or engage with civil society, claiming they were not subject to local laws.

Threats of violence

There is growing concern about political violence due to reported threats from members and supporters of the newly formed uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party, led by former president Jacob Zuma. Zuma was disqualified from standing in the next election due to a previous prison sentence for contempt of court. But his followers have rejected the decision.

“If these courts, which are sometimes captured, arrest MK, there will be anarchy in this country. There will be riots like you have never seen in this country. There will be no elections,” MK leader Visvin Reddy said in a video that circulated widely on social media in March 2024.

Reddy faces charges of inciting public violence, along with other members of the MK party. Social media posts, including a TikTok video, showed people wearing MK t-shirts and brandishing firearms. In January 2024, more than 60 people linked to MK were charged with inciting deadly riots in 2021.

Tech platforms’ refusal to share their election plan is seen as undermining democracy in South Africa, as activists and experts behind the Global Coalition for Tech Justice raised concerns over the platforms’ lack of cooperation despite the threat. imminent political violence.

Sherylle Dass, regional director of the Legal Resources Center, highlighted the risks associated with online campaigns that question the legitimacy of court decisions, drawing parallels to the events that led to violent riots in July 2021.

“These narratives attacking the independence of the Constitutional Court are reminiscent of the narratives that developed both online and offline challenging the legitimacy of his contempt of court conviction that sparked violent riots in July 2021 to stop his arrest,” the leader said. by LRC Dass.

Social media platforms

Social networking applications.

Photo author: Archive

“There is a real risk that similar calls through concerted online campaigns could lead to unrest, especially in KwaZulu-Natal.

“LRC is concerned about the lack of transparency and unwillingness to engage with civil society organizations seeking substantive information about their electoral plans.

“Despite TikTok’s formal response, they subsequently provided the LRC with some of the requested information, albeit in very general terms,” ​​added LRC regional director Dass.

Civil society groups have been trying to collaborate with technology platforms to address issues related to the upcoming elections, but the companies have resisted sharing substantive information about their election plans.

This lack of transparency has raised questions about the platforms’ commitment to ensuring a fair and secure electoral process. SANEF has expressed frustration at the lack of response from technology companies in relation to combating disinformation and hate speech.

“Despite two reminders, as of April no acknowledgment had been received from TikTok or X (formerly Twitter). Meta provided a vague response to revert in due course, but six weeks later had not done so.

“Google agreed to a meeting, although in the subsequent discussion the company only provided generic responses rather than specific cooperation,” reads the SANEF statement published in April.

‘Data denied’

Furthermore, the refusal of social media companies to provide information about their management of the South African news ecosystem has been described as “incredibly problematic.”

Bulanda Nkhowani, Director of Campaigns and Partnerships for Africa at Digital Action and coordinator of the Global Coalition for Technology Justice, said this could, in fact, be a potential threat to democratic processes.

“It seems impossible to hold companies adequately accountable for their acts and inactions related to the management of the online space during the South African elections,” he said.

Nkhowani also believes that these companies have not done enough to make their platforms safe in the countries where most people live. This has led to more violence and the spread of false information online.

The impact of these failures has been felt in countries such as Brazil, Myanmar, Ethiopia, Tunisia and South Africa. Harmful content has led to real-world violence and attempts to undermine democracy in these countries.

Digital Action’s Nkhowani added that threats of violence spread by MK politicians, coupled with the platforms’ refusal to engage with national stakeholders and address platform-related risks, pose a significant threat to democracy in South Africa.

“Companies like Meta, TikTok, Google and

“This includes avoiding any amplification of content that incites violence before, during and after the elections, along with greater public transparency in South Africa, including responding to institutional and civil society requests for information on ecosystem management information of the country”.

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