Statement: Content platforms urged to share data with African elections researchers

Over fifty media and research stakeholders from across Africa are calling for social media platforms to give equal treatment to Africans in line with what is being offered to researchers in major jurisdictions outside the continent. This call is based on the urgent need to monitor and formulate joint mitigation responses to disinformation and hate speech, given the elections in nearly 20 countries in Africa over the course of 2024.

These stakeholders making this call for parity in data access were brought together in Cape Town, South Africa, in November 2023 by Research ICT Africa (RIA) and International Media Support (IMS). 

The discussions by these stakeholders, coming from 11 African countries, noted that platforms provide space for public discourse, and serve as an important avenue for both access to, and sharing of, elections data and information. But the stakeholders noted that the platforms are also sites for amplifying potentially harmful online content that corrupts elections, threatens journalists, increases polarisation, and incites violence during or after the polls. 

The organisers invited X (Twitter), Meta (owner of Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp), Google (owner of YouTube), and TikTok to be part of the discussions, but representatives of these platforms did not attend. The call remains for these global tech companies to join such discussions in the future and to make their application programming interfaces (APIs) open and available to African researchers as a way of building trust, and working on joint responses or actions on misinformation and disinformation. 

The discussions recognised that long-standing African accords do provide for accessing information during elections, as agreed by the African Union’s African Commission on Human Peoples’ Rights. The stakeholders proposed that these resources be linked to further pan-African instruments on data and on elections, in order to ensure improved data access and governance on a continental scale.

RIA and IMS are encouraging further multi-stakeholder dialogues among more actors at the country level focused on using big data to research both positive and negative dimensions of platforms in regard to the integrity of African elections and online content. More specifically, the meeting emphasised research aimed at studying how organised networks and large language model-based generative artificial intelligence (AI), and other forms of AI-based technologies, are impacting the polls.

On a related matter, the stakeholders encourage the European Commission and Digital Services Coordinators to ensure that researchers and research institutions outside the European Union, including on the African continent, can gain access to platforms’ APIs and search engines’ data under the European Digital Service Act’s (DSA) Article 40.  

More concretely, this means ensuring that researchers not based in the EU are eligible to become “vetted researchers” as defined by the DSA when conducting research that contributes to “the detection, identification, and understanding of systemic risks in the Union.” These steps would strengthen inclusivity and diversity by taking into consideration the DSA’s global potential and impacts.

The discussions recognised that public interest access to data held by the platforms is not at the expense of personal data protection, and that the two objectives are not mutually exclusive.

  • Africa Freedom of Information Centre (AFIC), Collaboration on International ICT policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), Digital Action, Paradigm Initiative, Somali Media Women Association (SOMWA) and OpenUp  express support for the momentum of national dialogues on these topics.

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14 December 2023