Given the damning revelations by Facebook whistle-blower Frances Haugen, the Local Government Election Anti-Disinformation Project calls on Facebook South Africa to break its silence and provide a full briefing of its efforts to combat disinformation and any election interference on its platform.

Facebook has claimed that transparency is a crucial pillar of its organisation. However, we have yet to witness this in South Africa. It is all silent on the Facebook South Africa front.

The Anti-Disinformation Project is currently in discussions with Facebook South Africa about this and reached out last month, asking the social media giant to pledge to combat disinformation on its platforms. We believe a constructive solution-seeking approach is essential to ensure that the integrity of South Africa’s election is protected.

In the last week, former Facebook employee Frances Haugen has revealed detailed insights about the inner workings of the social media giant regarding misinformation on its platform.

At a Congressional hearing this week, Ms Haugen said that Facebook constantly had put profit and maximising growth over putting safeguards on its platforms against the amplification of misinformation and disinformation. At Facebook, part of her remit was to analyse how the big tech company’s algorithm could be exploited.

Haugen was in possession of thousands of pages of confidential documents to back up her claims – before her appearance in Congress, and she had shared them with the Wall Street Journal, which published a series of reports based on them called the Facebook Files.

“The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats, and more combat. In some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people,” Haugen told the US Congress.

These revelations have indeed been shocking, confirmed what has been long known about Facebook and should be an impetus for the public to raise their voices not to have their private data be used to manipulate them in disinformation campaigns. Disinformation not only skews the public discourse but has also contributed to violence in South Africa in the unrest in July 2021.

“As the US election neared, Facebook beefed up its anti-disinformation efforts. US Facebook users posting about voting saw labels directing them to authoritative information about the upcoming election. This was extensively communicated,” says Phumzile Van Damme, Anti-Disinformation Project coordinator. 

“There is absolutely no reason why the same cannot and has not been implemented in South Africa, and one can only imagine the biases behind that come with such a decision. We hope our engagements with Facebook will be fruitful, and it will implement this.

In response to Haugen’s allegations, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “At the heart of these accusations is this idea that we prioritise profit over safety and wellbeing. That’s just not true.” We would ask Facebook to act on this sentiment in South Africa, and roll out similar safeguards to those implemented in the US.

“At this point having seen the damage of disinformation, all hands should be one deck especially with social media platforms like Facebook. Earlier this year alone we have seen the damage of disinformation and the election period in South Africa in the past has been breeding ground for disinformation. Facebook South Africa should be running a tight anti- disinformation campaign and working on their regulations to fight disinformation,” says Lazola Kati, Anti-Disinformation Project spokesperson. 

“Facebook South Africa simply has to do better and show South Africans what its stance is. South Africans must also stand and fight for free and fair elections while battling against disinformation on all fronts even on these same social media platforms we use”

The 2021 Local Government Anti-Disinformation Project is a first-of-its-kind common-purpose “country duty” collaborative project against disinformation and misinformation. The project’s partners are Phumzile Van Damme, Code For Africa, Lazola Kati, Superlinear, Dr David Rosenstein and WITNESS. The project’s partners maintain their independence and, on a voluntary basis, are collaborating to tackle disinformation in the lead up to the elections.

[Press Release]

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