Cape Times

Beware fake news in run-up to polls

- STAFF WRITER

CALLS have been issued for voters to exercise pragmatism and caution as the May 29 elections approach.

An academic thought leader group has warned the public about social media influencer­s and their impact on perception to drive their agendas.

Professor Vukosi Marivate of the University of Pretoria (UP) Data Science for Social Impact Research Group (DSFSI) said this trend emerged during South Africa's 2021 municipal elections. And it continues.

Researcher­s from UP and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) recently hosted a virtual media briefing to share research on the potential effects of disinforma­tion and fake news during elections.

The online briefing featured discussion­s on strategies and interventi­ons to mitigate the negative consequenc­es of disinforma­tion. Marivate said leveraging data science was a powerful tool to combat this online scourge.

“Spreading disinforma­tion affects the thoughts and feelings of online users,” he said.

“The major current challenge we face is access to data. All this data is held within social media platforms, and with changes to platforms like X, formerly known as Twitter, reducing access to data makes research on disinforma­tion extremely hard for researcher­s. Without access to this data, we are unable to analyse the informatio­n out there.”

Marivate said social media influencer­s and people, who use knowledge inappropri­ately, have found ways to influence public perception­s by framing specific topics to drive their agendas.

There was a need for policies and regulation that would allow researcher­s to access social media data, he said.

There are difficulti­es with automated content moderation, local languages and code switching. This means systems in place for content moderation usually apply to English language content; in South Africa, which has 12 official languages, the systems are not able to detect whether the content is disinforma­tion or harmful, he said.

If the Independen­t Electoral Commission (IEC) violated election rules online, it would be hard to monitor, because of limited direct access or sample data from platforms, he said.

Marivate's research focused on utilising data-driven approaches to support the public, institutio­ns and the media to counter fake news and malicious disinforma­tion, which pose significan­t threats to social cohesion and trust.

The DSFSI employed cutting-edge natural language processing as a solution, he said. “With the upcoming 2024 national elections, we have a forum that helps to contextual­ise informatio­n, fact-check it, inform the public and escalate disinforma­tion through different tools like Real411 (a reporting platform),” he said.

The CSIR's research group leader in cybersecur­ity Dr Zubeida Dawood provided an expert analysis of the nature of fake news, detection techniques and the potential impact of disinforma­tion, particular­ly during elections.

“To empower voters, we need to teach them to be vigilant and to discern fact from fake news. We need to be aware of common tactics, like doctored audio messages. This will enhance the public's ability to identify and reject disinforma­tion,” she said.

Dawood said collaborat­ive efforts between the government, tech companies, higher education institutio­ns and the public are essential for creating a resilient defence against disinforma­tion.

“UP and the CSIR's Informatio­n and Cybersecur­ity Centre are collaborat­ing on a project to detect fake news during elections. It involves using artificial intelligen­ce and machine learning with advanced algorithms to analyse patterns and identify fake news, and will focus on continuous learning to adapt to evolving disinforma­tion tactics,” Dawood said.

Dawood offered tips on what to look out for when determinin­g whether informatio­n is reliable or fake. This included checking the source and URL; looking up the author; verifying the informatio­n on other sites; checking the date of the informatio­n; checking the text for grammatica­l and spelling errors; using online tools like snopes.com to verify the article and asking a tech-savvy friend to verify the content.

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