Statement: Call for data access for researchers studying the South African elections

Research ICT Africa
20 May 2024

Research groups monitoring social media in the South African elections are calling for platform companies to allow open access to data holdings.  

They highlight that independent monitoring of social media is key to combating online disinformation and hate speech that can harm election integrity and have negative repercussions for peace and human rights. This kind of access for public interest research purposes is available in the USA and the European Union, but not in Africa in general and South Africa in particular. 

The researchers’ appeal is linked to their study of South Africa’s election and its medium-term aftermath, and is directed to Google, YouTube, TikTok, X, Facebook, and Instagram, as well as to WhatsApp’s meta-data and public channels. 

While some of these companies do offer public access specifically to political advertising repositories, the relevant datasets are rather narrow.  

Comprehensive data access is needed to independently monitor electoral-content trends, and to assess  the platforms’ own performance in addressing potentially harmful content and in elevating public interest information in relation to the poll and its consequences.  

Without direct access to the platforms’ Application Programme Interfaces (APIs), allowing realtime collection of data at the source, external researchers are hamstrung. 

Research sampling of a selection of content when conducted from the outside is limited in terms of identifying co-ordinated flows of potentially harmful content.  

The alternative of accessing platforms’ data-sets through commercial providers is very costly, and also offers a rather limited range of data. 

The research entities making this call express their support for the efforts of the African Alliance for Access to Data to engage the African Union on promoting data transparency for public interest research on the continent. 

Signatories are:

  • Research ICT Africa
  • Data Science For Social Impact (DSFSI), University of Pretoria
  • Media Monitoring Africa
  • NLP Research Group, University of Sheffield, UK
  • International Center for Journalists
  • Clemson University Media Forensics Hub
  • The Center for Analytics and Behavioural Change, University of Cape Town
  • Institute for Security Studies Africa
  • Interdisciplinary Centre for Digital Futures, University of the Free State
  • Murmur Intelligence
  • Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR)
  • African Digital Rights Network