CABC does battle in online war between fact and fiction
The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) is embroiled in the war between fact and fiction as the constructive potential of social media is steadily being subverted by malicious motives, write…
It’s so easy. All it takes is one touch of the “share” button on your cell phone.
Today, mobile digital technology makes it possible for anyone to influence anybody at any time on any issue anywhere in the world – or at least try to. The influences can be positive as in the case of the Arab Spring where social media campaigns drove democratic change. Or horrendous as we witnessed in Rwanda when radio propaganda laid the foundation for a 100-day genocide of the Tutsi people.
When authentic individuals share content on social media, based on their genuine feelings and beliefs, it has to be regarded as engaging in legitimate public discourse which is protected by the principles of freedom of speech and association.
But when organised influencer operations posing as individuals use disinformation to manipulate narratives on social media, it cannot be regarded as fair or legitimate. In fact, it can be very harmful.
In South Africa, we are witnessing a disturbing growth in anti-foreign national sentiment online. A lot of it is ostensibly based on a battle over resources but it could feature as a divisive issue in the run up to the 2024 election.
Despite this, very little is being done to prevent the gross misuse of social media, or to protect the unsuspecting public from the damage generated by distorting the truth to serve political, criminal or financial motives.
In the three years since its inception, the CABC has used a combination of online research to identify and analyse disinformation, narrative manipulation and influencer operations; media engagement to publicise the findings and insights that emerged, and active dialoguing on social media to correct misperceptions created by spreading false information.
Our research teams have uncovered many instances of mis and disinformation and narrative manipulation around a wide range of issues, including: Covid-19 vaccine hesitancy; Xenophobia; and the 2021 Local Government Elections.
As part of the CABC’s mission to empower the public with credible information, one of the outputs is the #CareZa website. “Under the Microscope” is a film series produced through this initiative that includes comedic cautions about the dangers of online disinformation and issue warnings for the public to remain vigilant against these dangers.
Part of the work done within the sphere of Gender Based Violence include the Loerie award-winning film which grapples with the idea of intergenerational violence and challenges viewers to disrupt patterns of harm within their own lives.
In partnering with Sonke Gender Justice, Innovation Edge and Heartlines through their HeCareZA campaign, they consider the importance of positive male contributions to the lives of children and share messages which reject misogyny and reshape online conversations.
The harm done by false narratives is extensive. Individuals at the receiving end of mischievous influencer operations are left with thoughts, feelings and beliefs that are warped by lies, communities are unduly swayed to act in ways that run counter to their social traditions, and national social and political dynamics are subverted by narrow interests, which are often socially flawed and divisive.
The trust and credibility of social media is being seriously undermined by organised influencer operations. The CABC has found that high levels of online mis and disinformation, coupled with sophisticated manipulation tactics, pose a huge threat to the legitimate political engagement and social discourse necessary to advance democracy through active citizenry.
Urgent intervention is needed on two levels: ensuring the public has access to factual information in the immediate term, and equipping social media users to distinguish between fact and fiction in the longer term.
This year’s analysis into Operation Dudula’s online presence revealed how strategic conversations online exacerbated tensions that existed in Diepsloot between South Africans and migrants in the area following Elvis Nyathi’s death.
The CABC continues to monitor figures who have played important roles within this context. Tracking Operation Dudula’s online presence has resulted in certain users being identified as primary twitter accounts which contribute to anti-migrant sentiment. Pinpointing when undemocratic rhetoric occurs and assessing its impact remains central to the work done by the organisation.
There is still much work to be done before we can declare that social media is safe from the dark and divisive motives of influencer operations.
The CABC promotes active and engaged citizenry through dialogues on various online platforms. The technology we have will allow for tens of thousands of people to participate in our programmes. Long-term this brings into existence the beginning of a citizen driven community of practice around tackling harmful online behaviour.
Each step we take is designed to take us towards our aspirational goal of a society that is informed, resilient, and self-regulatory.