We live in a world where new advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) are announced on an almost daily basis. These developments are expanding the frontiers of vital sectors like healthcare (diagnostics, surgery, and therapies) and education, as well as media, retail, and financial services.

But, as with any tool, AI can be used for good and for bad, and this issue of Africa in Fact sets out to look at how the technology has enabled a flood of misinformation and disinformation, both of which pose a serious threat to good governance and human security on our continent, and proposes strategies to mitigate the risks.

AI-enabled misinformation and disinformation are two different things; misinformation refers to false or inaccurate information spread without malicious intent, often resulting from a lack of verification. Disinformation, meanwhile, is the deliberate creation and dissemination of false information with the intent to deceive and manipulate.

AI technologies have drastically transformed the way information is created and spread. These advancements have democratised access to information, enabling individuals to communicate and share knowledge more efficiently. However, they have also lowered the barriers to producing and disseminating false information on an unprecedented scale.

An Africa Center for Strategic Studies research report, published in March this year, and quoted several times in this issue, said the 189 documented disinformation campaigns in Africa were nearly quadruple the number reported in 2022. Disinformation campaigns, the report said, had targeted every region of the continent, with at least 39 countries the targets of specific information campaigns.

As the articles published in this issue of AIF confirm, AI’s impact on information dissemination is particularly pronounced in Africa, where internet penetration and mobile phone usage have rapidly grown. Social media platforms, powered by sophisticated algorithms, can amplify false narratives quickly, reaching millions of users in no time. This phenomenon is not limited to harmless rumours; it encompasses a wide range of malicious content, including political propaganda, fake news, and misleading health information.

Good governance relies on transparency, accountability, and informed citizenry, and misinformation and disinformation undermine these in several ways: they erode trust in institutions (including elections); they can incite violence and intolerance in communities, particularly where ethnic tensions already exist, or the political landscape is highly polarised; they subvert the ability of both politicians and citizens to make informed decisions; they can damage public health; and enable malicious actors to manipulate public opinion and sway political outcomes, undermining the democratic process.

In their opening article, Africa Center for Strategic Studies researcher Mark Duerksen and co-writers, Harriet Ofori and Vanessa Manessong, write that Africa’s information circuits are overloading under a surge of disinformation. “The growing problem is undermining the open dialogue and fact-based reality required to sustain democratic processes,” they write, “and the outcomes are increasingly spilling into real-world instability.”

A wake-up call for how quickly disinformation can escalate and incite deadly violence came from the Democratic Republic of Congo, they write, when disinformation “pressure groups” ratcheted up rhetoric and conspiracies that led to the deaths of five peacekeepers and more than 30 protesters in the summer of 2022.

Contributor Neil Ford writes that there’s no doubt technology is playing a growing role in African politics, including campaigning and voting. “By harnessing the power of big data and social media, politicians can target their messages at individual voters, ” he writes, “[but] this threatens the democratic process by enabling the spread of inaccurate information, voter manipulation and even hate speech.” 

On the other hand, Ford points out that AI tools can also counter the worst excesses of social media by detecting and combating misinformation. AI, he writes, can also encourage people to vote by automating voter registration, with chatbots providing potential voters with information on registration and polling sites.

In his article, renowned digital strategist Chris Roper illustrates how the growing rollout of generative AI is eroding press freedom by “driving down the cost of production, allowing bad actors to scale propaganda campaigns, and reaching new audiences.”

 “There are no easy remedies to the damage disinformation is doing to press freedom across the continent,” he writes. “News organisations will have to empower their staff to use the tools and techniques of organisations that combat disinformation and concentrate on building and maintaining a relationship of trust with their audiences.”

Good Governance researcher Mmabatho Mongae agrees that improving information systems to mitigate misinformation is crucial. She writes that the consequences of failing to do so are already evident in political instability, such as coups in West Africa and skewed electoral outcomes. “These examples demonstrate that disinformation poses a severe threat to democracy in Africa, potentially more so than in other regions due to the continent’s unique vulnerabilities,” she says.

Mitigation strategies proposed by contributors include strengthening media literacy, educating people on how to critically evaluate information sources and recognise fake news and content. Governments must also enhance regulatory frameworks, developing and enforcing regulations that hold social media platforms and other purveyors of information accountable for the content they host. Two other strands that weave through this issue are the need for a multi-stakeholder, collaborative approach involving governments, civil society, the private sector and international organisations to combat the twin evil of misinformation and disinformation. Also, fact-checking initiatives must be equipped with the tools and resources to counter false information.

All of the articles in this issue of AIF make the point, one way or another, that AI-driven technologies have the potential to drive progress and development in Africa, but they also facilitate the spread of misinformation and disinformation, threatening good governance and human security. Fighting back requires a concerted effort from all stakeholders to promote media literacy, enhance regulatory frameworks, develop ethical AI, encourage collaboration, and support fact-checking initiatives.

Susan Russell is the editor of Good Governance Africa’s quarterly journal, Africa in Fact. She has worked in the media industry for more than 30 years as a journalist, editor, publisher, and as a general manager. Career highlights include several years working for Business Day and more than a decade as a reporter, editor and General Manager at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg.

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Susan Russell is the editor of Good Governance Africa’s quarterly journal, Africa in Fact. She has worked in the media industry for more than 30 years as a journalist, editor, publisher, and as a general manager. Career highlights include several years working for Business Day and more than a decade as a reporter, editor and General Manager at the Sunday Times in Johannesburg.

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