Tech giants under scrutiny ahead of South African elections amid misuse of social media

South Africa’s upcoming election on May 29, is seeing tech companies coming under a spotlight for refusing to share detailed plans to prevent use of social media to incite the public.

That and fears over fake news are a concern among some stakeholders who argue that freely available platforms such as Tiktok, Facebook and X could fuel the problem.

In 2021, a wave of violence swept through South Africa, resulting in over 300 deaths following a top court’s decision to imprison 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 the violence by amplifying inciting posts, as confirmed by South Africa’s Human Rights Commission in January 2024.

Now as the country prepares for the upcoming election concerns about potential 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 and engage with civil society, claiming that they were not bound by local laws.

Threats of violence

There are growing concerns about political violence due to the reported threats from members and supporters of the newly formed uMkhonto we Sizwe (MK) party, led by ex-president Jacob Zuma. Mr Zuma was disqualified from running in the upcoming elections due to a prior prison sentence for contempt of court. But his supporters have rejected the decision.

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

Reddy is facing charges of inciting public violence, along with other MK party members. Social media posts, including a TikTok video, showed individuals wearing MK shirts and brandishing firearms. In January 2024, over 60 people linked to MK were charged with instigating deadly riots in 2021.

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

Sherylle Dass, Regional Director of the Legal Resources Centre, highlighted the risks associated with online campaigns that challenge 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 played out both online and offline challenging the legitimacy of his contempt of court conviction which led to violent riots in July 2021 to stop his arrest,” said the leader of LRC Dass.

“There is a real risk that similar calls through concerted online campaigns may result in unrest, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal.

“LRC is concerned by the lack of transparency and unwillingness to engage with civil society organisations seeking substantive information around their election plans.

“Despite TikTok’s formal response, they did subsequently provide the LRC with some of the information requested albeit in very general terms,” added LRC’s Regional Director Dass.

Civil society groups have been trying to engage with tech platforms to address issues related to the upcoming election, but the companies have been resistant to sharing substantive information about their election plans.

This lack of transparency has raised doubts about the platforms’ commitment to ensuring a fair and safe electoral process. SANEF has expressed frustration at the lack of response from tech companies regarding combating disinformation and hate speech.

“Despite two reminders, by April no acknowledgement 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 did agree to a meeting, although the ensuing discussion saw the company provide only generic responses rather than specific cooperation,” reads the SANEF statement released in April.

‘Data denied’

In addition, the refusal by social media companies to provide information on their management of the South African information ecosystem has been described as “incredibly problematic.”

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

“It appears impossible to properly hold the companies to account for their acts and omissions relating to the management of the online space during South Africa’s elections,” he said.

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

The impact of these failures has been felt in countries like 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 the threats of violence spread by MK politicians, along with the platforms’ refusal to engage with national stakeholders and address platform-related risks, pose a significant threat to democracy in South Africa.

“Companies such as Meta, TikTok, Google, and X (formerly Twitter) have been aware of the serious impacts of their inaction for years and cannot claim ignorance. They have a responsibility to ensure the safety of people and elections.

“This includes averting any amplification of violent inciting content pre, during and post-ballot, alongside increased public transparency in South Africa, including responding to institutional and civil society requests for information regarding the management of the country’s information ecosystem.”

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