Run on numbers: Disinformation in Africa. How prevalent is it in South Africa?

52045716 - abstract polygonal africa map with glowing dots and lines, network connections. vector illustration. eps 10

52045716 - abstract polygonal africa map with glowing dots and lines, network connections. vector illustration. eps 10

Published Apr 20, 2024


THE internet and social media have created the ideal conditions for a huge increase in false information and conspiracy theories. The terms “fake news”, “false information”, “misinformation”, and “disinformation” sound similar, but each has a different meaning. All of them can cause severe harm offline, especially because digital literacy and digital policy are both currently unable to keep up with the pace of change. The Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated how susceptible we are to information not entirely true or based on assumptions or deliberately altering a particular narrative to serve a powerful force. The best lie is the one containing the most truth, omitting just one small bit of falsehood that has a significant impact.

1. The University of Cape Town, It Division in a newsletter during Cyber Security Month in 2020, has stated the following. Here is a quick overview of the types of false information out there:

“Fake news: Experts recommend that we call this ‘false information’. It is any information – be it a news report, personal story, or other – aimed at misleading people with incorrect information. These deceptive ploys are created to push a particular political viewpoint, cause concerns or panic, or in some instances, make money for dubious companies or individuals”. (How true is this about Steinhoff, VBS, Insure, and the Gupta investments.)

Misinformation: Can you believe this was’s word of the year in 2018? Misinformation is intentional or unintentional false information that is shared to get a point across. So, if someone believes that they are sharing the truth (when it is false), they are spreading misinformation.

Disinformation: Unlike misinformation – which can be unintentional, disinformation occurs when people intentionally spread information that is false, biased, manipulative, or propaganda.

Complicated, right? Now, let us look at some of the popular ways that false information spreads:

Clickbait: These are articles with enticing headlines designed to reel you in, causing you to click the link to read more. The information is often incorrect, and sometimes you end up on a completely different web page.

Misleading headlines: Like clickbait, the news shared may be correct, but gripping, often sensationalist headlines are employed to draw your attention.

Propaganda: These are specifically related to politics and try to push a particular viewpoint or spread false information about political opponents.

Satire: A critical view of the ways of the world – often created as a story or graphic. For example, The Onion and Waterford Whispers.

Parody: A comedic spin is put on real-life events. For example, The Daily Mash.

Biased news: News that pushes a particular viewpoint or belief to prove a point.”

2. The simple and intuitive understanding is that rumours, as opposed to factual claims, are something circulating in society but unverified and without solid evidence. One significant study from this perspective is Shibutani’s (1966) book Improvised News which long precedes the current preoccupation with mis- and disinformation, in which he calls rumours “`improvised news”. Shibutani argues that in situations of ambiguity, people need information to solve the problems and evaluate possible actions; and when such needed information is unavailable, people would respond by collectively constructing consensus based on available data, guesses, beliefs, and speculation. This approach demonstrates that rumour can be seen as a collective tool for the public to navigate through adverse situations. Covid-19 news and information is a perfect example of how the world battled with the scientific facts and we are still wandering.

3. Great powers use strategic narratives to establish and maintain influence in the international system and to shape the system itself. Strategic narratives are a tool through which great powers can articulate their interests, values, and aspirations for the international system. In a study at the Centre for Global Political Economy at Sussex University under the title Great Power Politics and Strategies Narratives the authors state, “There are three big shifts in power. First, there is a shift from west to east, with the rise of China and India. Second, there is a shift between the national and the international spheres, with the growth of regional and global institutions. Third, there is a shift between states and citizens, what I call the ”civilian surge“ — the idea that around the world people who have hugely different access to opportunities and wealth nonetheless inhabit an increasingly common universe.

4. The Africa Centre for Strategic Studies has published a document titled Disinformation in Africa. Their findings/views are stated below. At the start, we wish to state something about the publishers. Their address is indicative of what is to follow. 300 5th Avenue, Building 20 Fort Lesley J McNair Washington, DC 20319-5066.

The institution point out various countries engaged in these activities, it is noteworthy that they do not find any actions emanating from the US. The US has 750 military bases spread over at least 80 countries in the world, which makes it highly unlikely that they would not have some narratives that they wish to impose on other countries.

Africa-wide Disinformation Campaigns: 23

Africa is subject to 23 transnational disinformation campaignsc— nearly all of which are sponsored by external state actors attempting to assert influence on the continent.

Russia and China are the leading sponsors of these Africa-wide campaigns to advance their geostrategic interests and shape narratives that undermine democratic processes, promote coups in Africa, stoke anti-Western and anti-UN sentiment, and spread confusion about climate change science, among others.

Given their scale, these attacks achieve some of the most expansive reach. Two prominent disinformation influencers connected to Russia, for example, have a combined social media following of over twenty-eight million users and their content has been amplified by a sprawling ecosystem of hundreds of Russian-linked accounts and pages.

Russia is the single largest sponsor of Africa-wide disinformation campaigns with 16 of these far-reaching operations.

These disinformation campaigns employ paid African influencers, digital avatars, and the circulation of fake and out-of-context videos and photographs. These messages copy and paste from and are amplified through multiple channels of Russian state-controlled media, radio, and official communications, creating the repetitive echo chambers in which disinformation narratives become rote. Russian embassies appear to have helped set up a network of ostensibly African grassroots front organisations (Partenariat Alternatif Russie-Afrique pour le Développement Économique (Parade) and Groupe Panafricain pour le Commerce et l’Investissement (GPCI)) to generate and amplify disinformation.

The Wagner Group has been the Kremlin’s primary vehicle for engineering disinformation in Africa—with direct links to approximately half of all Russian-linked campaigns on the continent. Following the 2023 death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s founder, Russian disinformation operations are being absorbed into the newly established Russian Africa Corps and the Africa Initiative News Agency, connected to Russian intelligence services and overseen by Artem Sergeyevich Kureyev from Moscow.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the second most prolific Africa-wide sponsor of disinformation with five known multi-regional campaigns.

The CCP — via the United Front and China Media Group — is the second most prolific Africa-wide sponsor of disinformation with five known multi-regional campaigns. Two of these cases have aligned with or amplified Russian narratives. However, the CCP’s approach is more institutionalized and heavily invested in laundering official CCP narratives through the ownership and control of ICT infrastructure as well as through licensing and training agreements with African media. These campaigns are part of a wider CCP effort to step up its use of disinformation.”

4. Closer to home, we quote an article placed by Africa Check, originally published on “Speaking to the media on 8 October 2023, the party’s secretary general, Fikile Mbalula, highlighted the progress made under ANC rule since 1994. Access to electricity was 36% then, he said, and ‘now we are almost at 100%’. We fact-checked this claim when it was made by President Cyril Ramaphosa in September 2023. Here is why it is still incorrect.

Comparing access

Household access to electricity has indeed improved since 1994. According to Statistics SA (Stats SA), 89.6% of households were connected to the electricity grid in 2022. The earliest available data on electricity connections is from the 1995 October household survey. It showed that 63.5% of households had access to electricity at that time. However, due to several methodological problems with the survey, Stats SA previously told Africa Check that the 1996 census was a more credible source of data. It found that 58% of households used electricity for lighting. Almost 48% used electricity for cooking and 46.5% for heating.”

Mbalula is renowned for his reckless utterances (firepool lies) which is a pity seen in the context of his seniority within the ruling party. The above fact check shows that the ANC can claim that they have been instrumental in improving access to electricity in a significant way and there is no need to make a false statement as the facts are good enough to make a point. Next time he states anything as fact people will take it with a pinch of salt.

Media companies have all made submissions to the Competition Commission in their inquiry into digital platforms. The media companies have related their view on the devastating impact Google, Facebook, and X have had on newsrooms and journalism. The fight for the truth and accountability is far from over.

* Kruger is an independent analyst.