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Migration and infrastructure problems fuel misinformation in South African polls

Johannesburg (AFP) – Experts warn that propagandists and fraudsters are exploiting xenophobia and anger over infrastructure failures to unleash a wave of misinformation ahead of South Africa’s most contested election since 1994.

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The ruling African National Congress (ANC) risks losing its absolute majority in the May 29 elections amid rising unemployment, rising xenophobia, prolonged power blackouts and accusations of endemic corruption.

AFP Fact Check found social media flooded with false claims related to the high-stakes election.

They range from AI-generated images showing poor road conditions in the opposition-controlled city of Cape Town to parties accused of supplying false documents to illegal foreigners.

“It is very worrying that levels of xenophobic discourse have increased in recent months as the elections approached,” said Dale McKinley of Kopanang Africa Against Xenophobia (KAAX), which is part of an international anti-racism network.

Prevailing themes include foreigners allegedly stealing jobs from locals, putting pressure on healthcare systems and being responsible for rampant crime.

“These are complete lies and misinformation, but they spread and people start to think they are true and all stereotypes are given the green light in that context,” McKinley added.

-‘Immigrants as pawns’-

Despite having one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, South Africa attracts many economic migrants from other parts of the continent.

The influx, coupled with a bleak economic outlook, has led to sporadic outbreaks of anti-immigrant violence in recent years.

Election candidates have further fanned the flames of hate and misinformation online by tapping into xenophobic sentiment and blaming foreigners for the nation’s problems.

“Candidates in South Africa’s upcoming general election have been scapegoating and demonizing foreign nationals, risking fueling xenophobic violence,” Human Rights Watch warned in early May.

“Politicians are using immigrants as pawns, without regard for their safety, in an attempt to get votes.”

Smaller right-wing groups, such as ActionSA, have repeatedly promoted false (and greatly exaggerated) numbers of illegal immigrants in South Africa, in their attempt to undermine the ANC-led government.

Disinformation peddlers have exploited voters' concerns about immigration and poor service delivery to undermine electoral discourse.
Disinformation peddlers have exploited voters’ concerns about immigration and poor service delivery to undermine electoral discourse. © SEBASTIEN BOZÓN / AFP

Meanwhile, online supporters of xenophobic group Operation Dudula have claimed that opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) had created fake identity documents for undocumented migrants in order to win more voters. But the photographs used as evidence were from an unrelated police raid.

AFP Fact Check has followed many other social media users who spread xenophobic content, including an X account called “Put South Africa First”, whose feed is littered with posts targeting Zimbabweans.

“The expression of such sentiment can fuel animosity and potentially lead to disputes over election results, particularly in a close race like the current one in South Africa,” said Cayley Clifford, deputy editor at fact-checking organization Africa Check.

“Digitally driven” survey

Poor public service delivery in South Africa is another hot button issue for many of the more than 27 million registered voters.

The continent’s most industrialized economy faces decaying infrastructure, from railways and roads to ports and power plants.

As a result, the country’s 62 million people regularly face water outages and prolonged electricity blackouts.

This crisis, compounded by a series of successive corruption scandals, has become a thorn in the side of the ANC, which has been in power since the advent of democracy ended white minority rule in 1994.

The crisis has also given rise to misinformation, as social media users seek to improve or discredit the leading party’s record.

“This type of misinformation misleads the public and creates a false perception of a politician’s or party’s achievements,” Africa Check’s Clifford said.

AFP Fact Check has debunked a Facebook post shared thousands of times that falsely accused the ANC of failing to complete a public toilet project.

Another photograph circulating on platforms allegedly showed huge potholes in Cape Town, governed by the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).

Despite its high unemployment rate, South Africa attracts job seekers from other parts of Africa, fueling a xenophobic atmosphere among some voters.
Despite its high unemployment rate, South Africa attracts job seekers from other parts of Africa, fueling a xenophobic atmosphere among some voters. © MARCO LONGARI / AFP

The analysis showed that the image had been created with an artificial intelligence tool.

For political analyst William Gumede, the “exaggeration of achievements and underestimation of the complexity of the problems” play a key role in what he called South Africa’s most “digitally driven” elections.

“There used to be forums and debates where policies were discussed, but this no longer happens except at a very small level. It is now being replaced by the digital sphere,” he told AFP.

“Digital misinformation becomes objective in conventional debates and policymaking, in politicians’ pronouncements and in manifestos.”

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