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Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice


A journalist’s take on influence ops and “hacking” the electorate

3/8/23 By Karen Allen

We don’t yet know exactly when South Africa’s general elections will be held but what we do know is that the stakes are higher than ever. Without question, co-ordinated online influence and disinformation campaigns and other dirty tricks will inevitably become part of the fevered information environment as election day approaches. These online campaigns are designed to tap into our prejudices and fears and shape our view of the world and artificially surround us with “people” (often bots) who we think share our outlook . So hats off that the Election Commission (IEC) of South Africa is beginning to think about such things with “dialogues” focusing on artificial intelligence, social bots and algorithms. This couldn’t come soon enough.

But the dialoguing probably needs to also happen in our living rooms, in the office, in the township taverns, spaza shops, on minibus taxis and more than ever in our newsrooms too. Why ? Because as citizens we all run the risk of becoming unwitting foot soldiers in helping to amplify narratives or prejudices that may be specifically designed to sew discord, unless we get wise to the fact that we may be being played and as my journalist colleague and friend Ferial Haffajee recently remarked, influence ops is set to become a “cottage industry”.

Let’s be clear. This is not about stifling free speech. There will always be ideas or narratives that don’t align with our views and they have a right to be aired, but understanding the way ideas are pushed in our direction as social media users, sometimes in a co-ordinated and artificial manner, is important to enable citizens to make informed choices.

Newzroom Africa interviewed me a few days ago to comment on influence and elections based on the Kenya research we undertook for the Institute for Security Studies which I referred to in a previous blog. There are plans to conduct a similar study in South Africa – by the way

As a journalist who is old enough to remember the valiant efforts of my colleagues at the BBC World Service Czech, Slovak, Polish and Russian services to transmit verified news back to their own citizens during the dying days of cold war censorship, sourced and verified information matters to me. I also believe it matters to the vast majority of people who consume news and current affairs “content”.

In an era of social media dominance where speed is king, thanks to advances in AI which can both help inform but also distort, and where audiences (and advertisers) demand “content” fast , it is sometimes hard for legacy (traditional) media to be heard above the noise.

In countries like South Arica there is a proud history of holding power to account, owing to its robust media culture and liberal constitution. There are also countless other journalists across the continent who often against all odds, are able to surface issues of corruption, criminality and human rights abuses perpetrated by those in power. This surely needs to be honoured and safeguarded as an important pillar of democracy? On the one hand incredible advances in technology and online platforms have democratised the creation of “news” and access to information more broadly. However, it also provides a new threat surface from which malign players may seek to “hack the electorate”.

Bear witness. That’s long been the credo of professionally trained journalists for whom getting to the source of a story is key – in fact multiple sources. Dogged hard work, the tenacity to pursue investigations and a broad network of contacts have long been the hallmarks of quality journalism. But how do you bear witness online with so many deep fakes and in an information environment where speed is king?

Moreover, in an information environment where advertising revenues for legacy media are being squeezed significantly, journalists may be forgiven for opting for the “low hanging fruit” that is provided by social media platforms ? Social media can offer a useful quick fix for filling a bulletin or providing copy. What’s trending now gets a slot on some radio shows, but we need to be aware of this dependency becoming a reflex.

Our ISS study has shown that some influencers target legacy media in order to expand their online networks. ( A useful metaphor is that of a parasite jumping on the back of a mosquito in order to advance the spread malaria). These highly skilled paid influencers then leverage their networks to push a particular world view. Furthermore, they also court media engagement (including antagonistic engagement) to amplify reach or lend credibility their narratives.

So in answer to the question Newzroom Africa posed, “how do we protect ourselves from malign influence campaigns in the lead up to the South African election? the answer is clear. Get behind our professional legacy media. Arm newsrooms with the tools, tactics and knowledge to mitigate against them becoming pawns in someone else’s influence campaign. And do it soon. For those of us shining a spotlight on this world we are happy to help.