Defending our Democracy 2021

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The Challenge

Over the past decade, narrative manipulation, conspiracy theories and disinformation on social media platforms have been effectively exploited to undermine democracies and elections across the world and polarise society. And billions of dollars are being spent to achieve this.

This investment, with big data, social media, targeted messaging and variable populist policies has meant that major changes in how power is acquired/retained have taken place. There is no going back, and to date there has been almost no counter investment.
Evidence shows that these techniques can undermine democratic participation, deliberation, and institutional action. This is achieved by both foreign and domestic actors who engage in activities that:

• Create echo chambers, polarisation and hyper partisanship.
• Legitimise mis/disinformation, ‘fake news’ and narrative manipulation.
• Allow manipulation by government and non-government factions, populist leaders, foreign governments, capital, organised crime, deep state and/or non-state actors.
• Encourage personal data capture and targeted micro-messaging/ advertising.
• Undermine democracy by allowing false narratives to sway voting patterns, as well as undermine the legitimacy of results.

The genesis of narratives that will be used during our local elections in 2021 already exist online. Democracies are under threat, and populist, nationalist, Trumpian narratives have spread – we have seen ample evidence of these narratives in our online space.
The early seeding of narratives that allow antagonists to question the credibility of elections were seeded before our last national elections. They are seeded early, and can be used when an election is close.

The precedent for identifying harmful narratives that may be deployed to negatively impact the elections and the electoral process already exist online. In the build-up to the national elections of 2019, we witnessed narratives in which the IEC was actively undermined and individual commissioners were attacked.

Extreme narratives are introduced, amplified, and gain traction until they become part of mainstream discourse.

Project Objective

The objective of the Democracy 2021 project is to support democratic processes, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and the Constitution throughout 2021 in the build up to, and aftermath of, the local elections that will be held in November 2021. We will use advanced social media analytics, AI, psychology, dialogue mechanisms at scale and together with a wide range of media partners, we will identify, report on and counter misinformation, disinformation, narrative manipulation, organised interference, hate speech, incitement to violence and narratives that threaten our elections.

The Democracy 2021 project will track, analyse, report on (and where necessary intervene in) key ‘hot button’ narratives that emerge around the election, the IEC and its individual commissioners, as well as attempts to foster public unrest and violence in service of disrupting electoral processes. Moreover, we will also tackle a range of other existing narratives that threaten our election that we know to be manipulated like: farm murders, land redistribution without compensation, Western Cape Exit, Nuclear, Free Higher Education, Zuma, Radical Economic Transformation, Indian Cabals, Shamila Batohi and others.

Critically, we will be monitoring these and other emerging narratives very carefully to identify artificially amplified networks and narratives that may be deployed by foreign and/or domestic actors in efforts to exert asymmetric power over our sovereignty and democratic integrity. We have the capability to both expose these networks, as well as to mount coordinated efforts to disrupt their activities.

Note that we have already proven that such networks exist – we have identified, published on and are currently disrupting a network of xenophobes active on SA social media.

The Results

The result the CABC seeks to achieve is a successful and peaceful democratic election where the integrity of democratic process, as well as the IEC, is safeguarded and ensured. This includes:

  • Timely exposure, and countering of, all detected efforts to divide the citizenry and undermine electoral integrity, whether from domestic or foreign actors and agencies.
  • To create awareness in the media and society as a whole about the harmfulness of online narrative manipulation efforts, with a view to making us all more informed consumers of online and social media messaging.
  • To establish a process of learning that will enable us to refine and improve how we deal with this particular area of narrative manipulation (i.e. undermining democracy and electoral processes), and how we improve the technological tools we use to enable the identification and countering of organised interference. This, by extension, will enable us to help safeguard democracy globally, by sharing our learnings and tools with other, similar agencies and centres around the world. 

Published Reports