Mar 05, 2024

Europe Needs a Nuanced Approach to Disinformation in African Elections

Africa is experiencing significant democratic backsliding in many countries. In their programs to support democratic elections, European funders should try to ensure they don’t play into the hands of authoritarians.

A woman cast her vote at a polling station during the regional elections in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, September 2, 2023.
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The fact that Senegal’s President Macky Sall postponed elections that had been planned for February 15 and the subsequent internet restrictions that were imposed amid protests have shocked and outraged protesters in Senegal and European partners alike. Until February, the country was seen as “a democratic bastion of stability in a volatile region.”Now observers are no longer so sure. 

With the arbitrary postponement of the election (the Senegalese Constitutional Council has since overturned the decision, but no new election date has been given), Senegal has joined the list of Europe’s partners in the Sahel (and elsewhere on the continent) that have shifted ever further away from being democracies. European policymakers are now forced to grapple with the fact that, despite billions of euros of investment aimed at moving the region in the opposite direction, policies designed to tackle governance and security issues have consistently done little to achieve their goals. For instance, one consistently overlooked area is election support, where the over focus on disinformation in international programming has had a troubling impact on democratic processes in the past. 

2024 brings many of these failed policies into sharp focus: It is the “year of democracy” with over 65 elections scheduled around the world, including 18 in Africa (which could see up to 330 million people vote). Many European countries such as Germany and the United Kingdom as well as the European Union itself have committed to investing in programs aimed at securing elections in Africa. 

However, this pivotal year for democracy on the continent means European leaders must be more mindful than ever of the unintended consequences of their policies. European funding bodies and institutions must learn from past mistakes and quickly adapt to the new digital risks facing elections in Africa. Otherwise, they risk playing into the hands of authoritarians, who seek to misuse support to impede democracy. 

In our interviews with African-based NGOs and experts, as part of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) project on digital threats to elections in Africa, they highlighted the fact that disinformation would be a key factor. However, they also noted that in many countries on the continent—and around the world—governments have used the spread of disinformation to justify harsher measures against free speech. Unless international efforts to counter the spread of false information properly grapple with the way it is being used to justify new authoritarian measures, they risk greenlighting oppression and further undermining democracy.

Playing into Authoritarians’ Hands

European programs aimed at African elections must, of course, be mindful of the way disinformation has undermined trust in elections, polarized and fragmented society, and heightened the chance of post-election violence. However, they must also be conscious of the fact that many governments facing elections have pushed through authoritarian laws and penalties that are purportedly aimed at addressing the spread of false information when their actual aim is “to silence dissenting voices, particularly during periods of unrest and elections.”

The LEXOTA tracker provides analysis on laws and government actions on disinformation across Sub-Saharan Africa. It tracks how “poorly designed legislative or policy responses to disinformation … pose serious risks to human rights—particularly the right to freedom of expression.” Tanzania’s 2015 Cybercrimes Act, for example, “bans ‘insulting’ speech, empowers law enforcement officials to respond to violations without judicial checks, and allows authorities to crack down on whistleblowers.”

 If these laws do not curb communications sufficiently, authoritarians do what Senegal’s government has just done: They turn the internet off (again justifying it as a way to address the spread of disinformation). The Senegalese government has claimed that shutting down the internet was a means to counter “hateful and subversive messages on social media,” but few have seen it as anything other than a means to hinder the ability of populations to protest again the decision to delay the election.

While the spread of inciteful, false information online could increase the chances of election-related violence, shutdowns have more often been used as a strategy of enforcing power and control in times of rising dissent (especially when the stakes are high, such as during elections). Between 2018 and 2022, at least 48 documented internet shutdowns in Africa and the Middle East occurred alongside violations of individuals’ rights to assembly and/or their rights to participate in political and public life, including through free and fair elections. For instance, in Chad in April 2021, shortly after members of the presidential guard went to the leader of the opposition’s house, where two members of his family were killed, national network connectivity dropped for more than six days, impeding “the work of human rights defenders to corroborate reports and raise awareness of the incident.”

These are not unique examples but are part of a large-scale pattern of regimes weaponizing and restricting the online space to curb freedom of expression—consistently justified under the guise of targeting disinformation. To effectively support the integrity of African elections this year, then, European funding bodies and institutions must adapt and respond to how their own programming could feed into these trends by inadvertently greenlighting a prioritization of disinformation above all else. 

Time for a Nuanced Approach

There is now a growing recognition among international donors of the dangers that technology poses to democracy and society. The EU has paved the way by introducing legislation to regulate artificial intelligence (AI) in Europe. Other initiatives run by EU member states, such as the Danish-led “Tech for Democracy” or by allies such as US President Joe Biden’s Democracy Summit have provided essential forums for examining how to improve European and international approaches to strengthening democracy in a digitalized age. 

However, these convenings have often failed to grapple with the way in which disinformation is being prioritized in programming (e.g., by an emphasis on short-term factchecking initiatives) or in the pervasive perception of AI driven mis- and disinformation as the biggest threat to elections—to the detriment of a more holistic understanding of digital threats. This often means that collective statements about the need for change have not yet trickled down into concrete changes in programming priorities.

Fortunately, as European policymakers look to improve their approach to supporting the 18 elections in Africa this year, there are some good case examples that provide insight into how funders and implementers can achieve better outcomes. Rather than prioritizing disinformation, some have focused on building independent media to improve the reach, reputation, and local legitimacy of those producing and disseminating credible information. For instance, BBC Media Action identifies community radio stations and media organizations and emphasizes the importance of creating trusted brands in the form of radio shows or social media presence, over long periods (in some cases working with partners for up to 10 years). 

In other cases, international donors have focused on strengthening civil society as the vehicle for democratic strengthening. The digital rights organization Access Now has received funding, from a number of European countries including Sweden, Germany, and Norway. It has been campaigning for the end of internet shutdowns, working to track incidents, and helping civil society navigate shutdowns and other digital security challenges through its digital security helpline operating worldwide. Others provide more technical support, for instance the Digital Defenders Partnership, which emerged out of the Freedom Online Coalition and is managed by the Dutch NGO Hivos. It provides emergency assistance in cases where human rights defenders have been attacked as well as sustained support (and accompaniment) to help them create resilient digital security systems. 

These examples show that a more nuanced approach by European funders to digital threats to elections is possible in 2024. Importantly, this kind of approach recognizes the way in which disinformation is a problem but also responds to the way it is weaponized. This will help the funders to become better at identifying and supporting those working toward democracy in Africa. 

Fennet Habte is a Research Associate at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin.
Abi Watson is a Research Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin.