Digital platforms have become an extension of our daily lives, especially in South Africa where there has been a significant growth in the use of social media.

According to the SA Social Media Landscape 2019 by Ornico and World Wide Worx, there are now 21 million Facebook users in South Africa which is up from 19 million users the previous year and Twitter has 8.3 million users according to the latest figures.

Barak Obama era of internet presidency

Politicians saw these figures and the subsequent activity as an opportunity to increase both their own activity, as well as to improve their presence across social media networks. This in the hopes of attracting social media savvy users who would in turn align themselves with their causes and campaigns. Former President, Barack Obama remains the leading example among politicians who successfully utilised social media for his 2008 presidential campaign – which some believe helped him to win the elections.

The Rise of Fake News

The influence of social media can also be negative with the spread of fake news, some of which is the result of bots and a concerted effort to spread misinformation. One of the most significant potential fake news claims in recent times is the suggestion of Russia’s interference in the 2016 US Presidential elections via social media.

South Africa is no exception in this phenomenon of fake news that creates divisions and confusion among people leading up to elections. The 2016 provincial elections in South Africa, according to News24 report, were influenced by social media and fake news sites. Following investigations, it was revealed that the ANC planned an alleged war room campaign where they were going to use news websites, Facebook, Twitter and fake election posters of the DA and the EFF. The allegations left the nation wondering how much influence occurs behind the scenes to develop a narrative that can potentially sway the outcome in one direction or another.

The ANC isn’t the only party that was alleged to have been unethical during electioneering, in 2013, News24 reported that the DA apologised to the ANC for posting fake posters during the by-elections at Tlokwe, in the North West.

Cambridge Analytica and Big Data Manipulation

Cambridge Analytica released the personal data of millions of Facebook users without their consent which was allegedly used for political gains. My Broadband reported that according to Facebook, 59,777 users in South Africa were impacted by this scandal. This raised concerns about whether people’s personal information is safe on social media and that it’s not taken advantage of by politicians who want their votes.

Social media has become a key element during election time where those with big enough purses are willing to flout ethics in order to win at all costs. With smarter tools, Big Data and access to media machines, the face of elections and who South Africans vote into power, will be interesting to watch as political parties gear up for another election year.

Seeing that Obama managed to reach to a younger audience with “free advertising of the internet”, South African politicians will be better served investing in this to reach the less engaged demographics.