Digital tool created to address online misinformation during SA elections

Tales of Turning – an organisation which harnesses research, social media, and technology for good – has partnered with the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington, and the Media Forensics Hub at Clemson University to conduct a field experiment focused on preventing mis- and disinformation over South Africa’s election period.

Digital tool created to address online misinformation during SA elections

One of the biggest threats to modern democracy is the sharing of rampant misinformation and disinformation, particularly over the election period. South Africa has experienced the real-world danger of such false news with the 2021 riots, and the 2024 General Elections brought this to the spotlight once more. 

Tool to challenge misinformation

One collaborative effort is leveraging digital tools as a way to challenge mis- and disinformation. The research aims to assess the influence of Tales of Turning’s digital dialogue facilitation methodology in a real-world setting, providing insights into where this approach is most effective. The work follows a series of laboratory studies led by researchers at the Center for an Informed Public, testing key aspects of the dialogue facilitation teams’ intervention around the South African 2021 local government elections.

The results show that most users are less likely to trust information when an online user questions its validity. User comments that contain ‘truth queries’ – questions drawing attention to the truth of the information – can reduce belief in the information and diminish the intent to share potential mis- or disinformation. These ‘truth queries’ actually reduce trust in the original content poster. Researchers found a variety of similarly effective replies that could address the sharing of false information.

“The results of these studies provide promising evidence that Tales of Turning has developed a flexible, easy-to-implement strategy that may be effective in addressing a variety of different types of problematic content online,” says Madeline Jalbert, PhD, one of the lead investigators on this work. “This new field experiment will provide important information about how these replies can be most effectively applied in a complex online environment.”

Detailed online research

Tales of Turning uses data from public social media, and insights from communities themselves to understand the root causes of conflict. This fosters an understanding of the dynamic and complex nature of conflicts in different contexts. Not only does social media provide big data to inform interventions, these platforms make it possible to reach people at scale.

The study began a few weeks before the South African election on 29 May 2024 and is set to continue for a few weeks after the elections. The research involves the Tales of Turning’s digital dialogue facilitators identifying and responding to explicitly false and misleading information about the election’s processes, institutions, and outcomes.

This testing focuses on the narrower ‘truth queries’ such as ‘Yiza nazo?’, ‘Wena o tsebella kae?’, ‘Hoekom se jy so?’ and ‘Is this true?’. The replies were chosen for this testing as they can be applied to a broad range of misinformation quickly and easily, making them well-suited to address large quantities of newly emerging misinformation.

The research team will then investigate how these replies impact key outcomes of posts containing misinformation – such as sharing, engagement, and user replies – over time, comparing the outcomes to equivalent posts identified that did not receive replies from the dialogue facilitators.

Join our webinar

Tales of Turning, the Centre for an Informed Public, and the Media Forensics Hub are hosting a webinar to share more about the digital dialogue facilitation methodology and the research.

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