Go back

South African scientists battle to track election rumours

Image: rob dobi, via Getty Images

Limited access to social media data makes studying misinformation flows “almost impossible”

Data scientists trying to monitor misinformation spreading in real time as South Africans voted in the country’s general election last week say their work was hampered by restrictive data policies.

Vukosi Marivate from the University of Pretoria says social media platforms like X and Facebook have largely shut researchers out, making gathering and analysing public post data “almost impossible”.

This has set the 2024 elections apart from earlier elections, when social media platforms enabled easy access for researchers to gather data, Marivate said.

This time around, his team had to rely on organisations like the country’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, which has “paid access through third-party marketing tools,” he said.

‘Immense’ work

As the results began flowing in after polling stations closed on the evening of 29 May, several disinformation campaigns were unmasked by civilian fact-checkers, researchers and news outlets.

According to Marivate, there is an “immense” amount of work needed to be done for real-time monitoring of how disinformation is spread. He said: “Preliminary analysis shows there are groups of people who tend to gather around a topic to amplify it and also sow distrust.”

Zubeida Dawood, a cybersecurity expert at the CSIR, told Research Professional News that social media organisations, the government and the private sector need to do more to enable transparency, to regulate and flag political misinformation, and to help researchers “understand the patterns and impact of misinformation”.

She said the private sector can help by providing funding to academic institutions and research organisations that are studying misinformation and how to combat it.

Moderation gap

In March, Marivate and Dawood called for appropriate policies around misinformation and elections in South Africa, as well as access to social media data.

Back then, they said updated regulations and open data are needed to monitor harmful online behaviour and to develop local artificial intelligence technologies to help safeguard elections.

This week, Marivate reiterated that social media platform data access policies are “supremely important” for ongoing misinformation monitoring, and to enforce election rules and moderation of content that may harm South Africans.

“There is misinformation that was flagged months ago that is still up on these platforms today. We will likely have election misinformation still being available, even after being debunked, months or years from now,” he said.