Meeting the challenges of information disorder in the Global South: sub-Saharan Africa

As the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, digital inequalities and insecurities within information ecosystems are exacerbated during times of crisis. The varying manifestations of information disorders during the pandemic also showed that the phenomena is largely influenced by the social, political, economic and historical contexts of the country or region. Actors across the Global South have taken up the challenge to combat the so-called infodemic. However, despite this, studies on information disorder remain dominated by theoretical paradigms, examples, and case studies drawn from relatively recent experiences in Global North contexts.

An 18-month collaborative project was conducted as a response to this gap in knowledge. It was led by the University of Cape Town’s Professor Herman Wasserman and funded by the  International Development Research Centre (IDRC), with  Research ICT Africa (RIA) covering the sub-Saharan Africa region (inclusive of francophone and anglophone countries). Other teams included InternetLab – covering Latin America and the Caribbean; LIRNEasia – covering Asia and Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism – covering the Middle East and North Africa.

Overall, the exploratory study aimed to:

1. Map the actors currently working in the counter-information disorder and to identify frameworks upon which interventions are based;

2. Learn from current approaches, tools, and methods used to counter information disorder and;

3. Gain an overview of the research landscape and to identify key issues and questions for further research.

In sub-Saharan Africa the data collection process consisted of three steps: collection of publicly available information from websites and other sources; coding of information about the actors and their initiatives collected from their websites, and interviews with actors.

The study revealed general trends and the distribution of certain characteristics among initiatives in the region. The majority of the seventy-nine initiatives identified in the region are led by media or civil society organisations. They mostly direct their efforts at the general population, followed by those targeting media professionals. On the distribution of characteristics, the most common method adopted to counter mis or dis-information is monitoring and fact-checking. However, it was also observed that most initiatives use a combination of different strategies and methods to tackle different dimensions of the problem such as in-depth investigation efforts which aim to unearth the sources, drivers, and impacts of information disorders, technical and algorithmic interventions, empowerment and credibility labelling efforts, and policy/legislative advocacy.

Most of the organisations interviewed for the study identified lack of funding as their biggest challenge. Organisations lack funding for day-to-day operations as well as for the specialised activities needed for fact-checking and related functions. A high level of dependence on donors and term-limited funds was also cited as leading to sustainability problems. Other challenges faced by organisations and actors include: lack of access to data and information sources for fact checking due to poor regulation and unwillingness of public officials to share information; limited availability of tools to respond to constantly changing trends in information disorder; and the difficulty of effectively monitoring and evaluating the impact of responses deployed.

Additionally, our review of legislative efforts in forty-six sub-Saharan African countries found that with the exception of Ethiopia, no countries currently have legislation focusing exclusively or explicitly on mis- and disinformation. Instead, they rely on legislative clauses contained in other types of legislation such as cyber-security laws, laws against falsehoods or sectoral laws. However, given some countries’ historical use of laws to repress freedom of expression and press freedom, critics argue that the law should be considered as an intervention only where strong democratic principles are evident, and the rule of law is observed without fear or favor.

Finally, a review of literature on information disorder in the region shows that limited research has been done on contexts other than the COVID-19 pandemic. Similarly, while several studies present a global perspective on information disorder, especially from a digital point of view, not enough attention is given to the efforts of grassroots actors who are actively combating information disorder offline. There was also limited visibility of the academic landscape for francophone countries in sub-Saharan Africa, as the majority of literature found was in the English language.

Overall, this study has taken a small first step in mapping the wide range of actors and responses to information disorder in the Global South. We anticipate that this mapping can be used to inform a research agenda on information disorder in the Global South, as well as foster more collaborations between organisations within sub-Saharan Africa and across the Global South.

**Download the full report here.

*This version of the regional report has been corrected to indicate that Digital Africa Research Lab has never received funding from the Twitter, as was incorrectly stated in a previous version of the report.