Our media have highlighted the apparent lack of action and Justice by the state, and some have intended the for similar or even higher levels of violence. In addition to the President’s Panel on Civil Unrest in July 2021, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) also organized a violence investigation. We hope that the findings of the SAHRC investigation will be published soon so that we can urgently engage, possibly implement its recommendations and ensure that we have effective and rights-based mechanisms in place to respond to future periods of crisis or unrest.
As we remember those who lost their lives, it is essential that we take steps to ensure that we do not see a repeat of such horrific events. It is essential that we do so, not only because we cannot afford more destruction, but because we must ensure that we learn from these harmful events and, in doing so, honor the 354 people who lost their lives. during this period. Without removing the compelling need for meaningful and concrete action by the state, and the security cluster in particular, we must accept that it is in all of our interests to act to prevent such violence.
Given that our work at Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) crosses online and offline forms of media and communication, we were – and remain – keenly aware of the role of social media in some cases, in escalating unrest. The role of social media in the July violence was highlighted in the expert panel report and in submissions to the SAHRC inquiry. Curiously, the panel of experts did not make any recommendations regarding the enormous challenges of social media. As MMA, we would like to see the creation of a Rapid Information and Communications Task Team (RICTT). The RICTT would have several purposes, but one of them would be to act as an effective communication strategy and an effective crisis response mechanism.
Why do we need the RICTT?
Execution of the Real411 over the past three years has shown that misinformation and disinformation thrive when there is not enough detail or large gaps in communication, but also when anxiety levels and tensions are high. It is therefore not surprising that there has been a proliferation of misinformation and disinformation around the violence in July 2021. During the unrest we have also seen – as evidenced by other instances, such as some of the Afrophobic content ubiquitous shared on social media – a combination of online prejudices that have come together to heighten tensions and anxieties. For example, there were posts showing burning buildings a few years ago and, in some cases, violence from different countries. This content was often accompanied by calls encouraging and inciting further violence. MMA highlighted these and other elements during our submission to the SAHRC investigation.
To understand why we need an RICTT, it helps to remember that the role of social media has been highlighted amid the violence. In particular, during his address July 12, 2021 President Ramaphosa said, “We must refrain from posting and spreading inflammatory messages on social media, and spreading rumors or false reports that may create further panic.” In addition to responding to cases reported to Real411, media outlets also helped their audiences with tips and guidelines on how to spot misinformation to help alleviate the fear and anxiety some were causing on social media.
Perhaps the biggest social media challenge in times of crisis is finding a response that is both rights-based and effective. Efforts by other states to ban disinformation have resulted in unreasonable inroads into free speech. Likewise, extreme measures like internet shutdowns are pretty much the worst possible option and tend to be exercised in more authoritarian contexts, almost always dictatorships. Not only do they shut down some potentially bad content, but they also completely shut down most other ways people can get accurate and reliable information. It is therefore essential, in the fight against misinformation and disinformation, that any action falls fully within the precepts of our Constitution and is firmly anchored in international human rights law, including respect for freedom of expression and access to information.
A key lesson from the Covid pandemic has been the critical importance of a multi-stakeholder approach. MMA has always maintained that the fight against misinformation will only be successful if a multi-stakeholder approach is taken. States, social media platforms, civil society, credible media, academics, other experts, and the general public all have a role to play in addressing the spread. None of these alone can effectively combat misinformation and disinformation – or even other online harms.
That’s why we believe that given the positive and potentially dangerous role social media can play in times of crisis, there needs to be a system in place ready to communicate effectively to counter misinformation. Fortunately, we already have an exciting precedent to draw from the Covid pandemic and work around elections.
One of the most successful elements of South Africa’s response to the Covid pandemic has been the establishment of a multi-stakeholder social listening group. A similar approach was taken in the run-up to the 2019 national general elections, where the IEC, social media platforms and civil society worked together to counter disinformation.
What is the RICTT
Times of crisis, such as the Troubles, require urgent and immediate responses. This has been recognized by our government which established the National Joint Operations and Intelligence Structure (Natjoints) as the operational arm of the Justice, Crime Prevention and Security cluster. The mandate of the Natjoints is to plan, implement, execute and monitor all interdepartmental and interprovincial operations affecting the safety, security and stability of our country.
Natjoints is well placed to integrate our proposed Rapid Information and Communications Task Team – RICTT – which, among other things, analyzes, provides up-to-date information, develops risk communication strategies and advises Natjoints and other parties. key stakeholders, including social media platforms, of any imminent threats or issues that need to be addressed during a crisis such as a time of unrest. It is clear that Natjoints is the appropriate structure under which the envisioned work team would fall. First, Natjoints can bring together relevant ministries, as well as other actors needed to respond to a crisis situation. Second, Natjoints is aware of concerns about misinformation and incitement on social media platforms and would benefit from a coordinated response.
Although Natjoints is the logical seat of the RICTT, given the predominance of security cluster entities in its composition, it would be important for the RICTT to operate independently, and it is equally important for the RICTT to be guided by an approach rights-based. It is precisely in times of crisis that respect for rights is essential. When responses fail to infuse a rights-based approach, crises can escalate, with new rights violations emerging.
To enable a rights-based approach, the RICTT should be led by an independent body like the SAHRC. Members of the RICTT should include, subject to the specific nature of the unrest or crisis – SAPS, the Ministry of Communications and Digital Technologies, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa, social media platforms, telecommunications companies, civil society organizations, journalists and media associations, independent fact-checking organizations and other relevant private actors able to provide expertise, evidence and contribute to a multi-stakeholder approach to disinformation.
The RICTT would only be called upon to come together to help combat misinformation and incitement on social media platforms in times of unrest or state of disaster.
In our view, the RICTT would have two main functions. First, to ensure that reliable and accurate information is developed and disseminated and is accessible to all. It is important to ensure that communication in times of crisis and unrest is always available and that relevant and appropriate information is easily accessible to all. These communication efforts must be effective, open and transparent.
Second, at pproactively identify, address and correct misinformation. MMA recommends the expansion and integration of initiatives such as Real411 to proactively identify, address and correct misinformation.
Real411 has played an active role during the unrest and has played and continues to play an important role in the fight against online disinformation and misinformation in the context of the pandemic. The Real411 is a reliable, accessible and responsive platform that can help the work of the work team. It is important that a similar approach is taken to ensure appropriate safeguards for free speech, political organizing and robust dissent while building capacity to deal with incidents of disinformation and incitement.
MMA, backed by public interest law firm, Power Singh Inc, formally presented the RICTT concept to the SAHRC inquiry. Our next step will be to assess additional support and engage some of the key stakeholders, including representatives from Natjoints and the Presidency. In doing so, we hope to make a constructive contribution to how we respond as a nation to the next crisis. It is easy to moan and point out government failure. The problem is that South Africa belongs to all within it, it is our democracy. Collectively, as we develop safeguards and design mechanisms for times of crisis – whether pandemic or civil unrest – we must ensure that proactive and reactive measures are imbued with the tenets of our constitution, protect fundamental rights and enable openness and accountability. SM/MC
William Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA). Tina Power is a senior partner at Singh Power Inc.
Remember, if you come across content on social media that could potentially be misinformation, report it to Real411.