Reflecting on 2023’s Information Disorders in Africa

By Zara Schroeder – AI Researcher at Research ICT Africa (RIA).

In the ever-evolving landscape of the African continent, digital technologies are heralding a new era of social transformation. From reshaping communication channels to influencing public discourse, the impact of these technologies is undeniable. Amidst this digital revolution, the issue of information disorders has come to the forefront, demanding comprehensive analysis and intervention. Building upon its extensive groundwork in understanding information disorders, RIA embarked on a pioneering initiative during 2023 to dissect the nuances of this phenomenon within African contexts.

RIA’s role in this project is to promote democratic self-determination, as RIA understands that politics lie at the heart of information disorder; consequently, politics also forms part of the analyses of these information disorders. Furthermore, information disorders are understood to be a multi-levelled concern embedded in a wide array of social, political, and economic issues. With my expertise, I aim to underscore and delve into the social complexities that underpin information disorders in Africa. I firmly believe that social issues permeate every facet of society, intertwining with the very fabric of communities affected by information disorders.

It is imperative to engage with these communities directly, as their voices are often marginalized in discussions surrounding the issues that profoundly affect them. Inclusion of these voices is paramount as we move forward in addressing these challenges. The ultimate objective of this project is to identify key drivers of information disorders in the Global South and to influence policy and governance interventions. For the upcoming phase of the project, I suggest adopting a bottom-up approach for the project by incorporating the perspectives of those directly affected by information disorders. For this reason it is essential to involve their voices in discussions concerning the implementation of safeguards and regulations.

In 2023, RIA tackled this project through various outputs; the main ones included a policy brief, a mid-year report, and an annotated bibliography. I begin by recapping the Mid-year report, “The Materials of Misinformation on the African Continent: Mid-year Report, 2023,” which outlines RIA’s core role in this project, recognizing the key players of information disorders in the African context, as well as monitoring germane issues on misinformation. Moreover, the report acknowledges that three things are made clear from this study, namely: it is exceptionally important that peace and stability in Africa be maintained; second, it is recognised that Africans are engaging in politics via governance partners that correspond with their situation; lastly, it is evident that information disorders are prevalent across all of these aspects.

Accordingly, I advocate for leveraging the insightful contributions of this report by actively involving African citizens from diverse regions. This engagement aims to understand firsthand how they encounter information disorders and discern the areas of their lives most affected by such misinformation. By doing so, we gain valuable insights into the societal issues amplified by misinformation, guiding us towards targeted regulatory and policy interventions.

In defining information disorder as “problematically inaccurate information furthering de-democratization ends,” this report underscores the overarching goal of tracking sources and venues of information disorder, particularly within the realm of political contests across Africa1. It highlights how social and cultural conditions create fertile ground for certain types of information to thrive, with actors vying for control over narratives within the information ecosystem. Furthermore, the report extensively covers various core research questions of the project, notably in sections focusing on “AI Chatbots and Deep Fakes,” “Topics of Concern: Conflict,” and “Topics of Concern: Trends,”. These sections delve into how AI is utilised to facilitate and hasten the propagation of disinformation within the African context.

Specifically, the first segment sheds light on the detrimental effects associated with the utilisation of AI chatbots and deep fakes in disseminating news across the continent. RIA’s primary apprehension regarding the use of AI chatbots in information dissemination revolves around the potential threat they pose to democratic political systems. This threat manifests through the fostering of distrust or inauthenticity in digitally-mediated interactions. This section particularly delves into the potential of generative AI to become a significant driver of media, while also examining the risks and harms inherent in these technologies. Participatory action would be incredibly beneficial to implement in this section to explore the different ways in which generative AI has impacted end-users with regards to the spread of misinformation. It would be intriguing to conduct a comparative analysis of the augmented level of distrust in information generated by generative AI technologies, this could then be juxtaposed with the dissemination of inaccurate information through various AI platforms and systems in order to gain a better understanding of the new harms which may emerge with generative AI technologies.

The common theme that runs through RIA’s outputs is how the media is used to disempower citizens through the control of the information that they are being fed by their respective governments. Certain knowledge is intentionally withheld from the citizens to shape and push forward certain narratives, especially during times of conflict Social issues in Africa that impact and influence the spread of information disorders. One of the social issues mentioned in the report that I would like to draw attention to is online gender-based violence. Diving into the issue of online gender-based violence, it was noted that 40% of women in Africa are concerned about their online safety, yet only 12.4% of the women who experienced a violent online incident reported it 2,3. However, more often than not, nothing is done about it by the state or any other governing bodies or authorities. This reinforces the notion that at the core of these coordinated harms are “pervasive structures of patriarchy, dominance, and surveillance.4”

RIA’s annotated bibliography, “Information Disorders in Africa: An annotated bibliography of selected countries,” covers over 50 academic studies. This bibliography serves as a comprehensive resource, offering a detailed exploration of how information disorders manifest in African societies. By scrutinising the utilisation of digital technologies by Africans, this annotated bibliography delves into the historical evolution of media dynamics. It unravels the intricate relationship between technological advancements and the propagation of information disorders, shedding light on how various societal actors have shaped this phenomenon over time. At its essence, this annotated bibliography serves as a toolkit for driving targeted interventions aimed at regulating information disorders. In a landscape where misinformation, disinformation, and fake news have permeated public life, such interventions are critical for fostering transparency and accountability. What sets this resource apart is its accessibility. Published under a Creative Commons license, the annotated bibliography is a living document, open for others to utilise and expand upon.

What caught my eye in this report was the literature that spoke to issues around power dynamics, hierarchies in society, inequalities, policing of knowledge, freedom and speech, as well as concerns around surveillance through various forms of digital media. This piece addresses many of the core research questions of the project that try to address who the key drivers are of information disorders in Africa and what can be done to mitigate these drivers and the implications of their actions on Africans.

Lastly, the final piece was a policy brief titled, “Policy Reinforcements to Counter Information Disorders in the African Context.” This piece recognises that in the era of digital connectivity, the proliferation of information disorders has become a pressing concern globally. Africa, with its diverse socio-political landscape and rapidly evolving digital ecosystem, is not immune to this phenomenon. Understanding the dynamics of information disorders in Africa requires a nuanced examination of the socio-cultural conditions that shape the dissemination of information and the actors involved in controlling narratives within the information ecosystem.

At its core, information disorders can be understood as emerging from social and cultural conditions that render certain types of information appealing to audiences. In Africa, as elsewhere, the information landscape is characterised by a myriad of actors vying for control over narratives. Those with resources and infrastructure wield significant influence, shaping the information environment to serve their interests. Moreover, information disorders thrive in environments of information scarcity, where governments fail to proactively share information with the public. In such information vacuums, misinformation and disinformation find fertile ground to spread unchecked, further exacerbating societal divisions and undermining trust in institutions.

Tense political conjunctures, especially during elections, amplify the propagation of information disorders. The perceived stakes of elections incentivise political parties to engage in subtle platform-based misinformation campaigns, exploiting digital channels to sway public opinion. This manipulation of information undermines the integrity of the electoral process and erodes trust in democratic institutions. Furthermore, states often employ digital technologies to bolster their legitimacy, utilising platforms for strategic communication and narrative control. However, they also perceive digital platforms as threats to their control over information flows, leading to tensions between governments and digital intermediaries. With this being said, how can we as individuals enable those who are being directly affected by misinformation to have their voice heard?

In light of these dynamics, I reiterate that addressing information disorders in Africa requires a multi-faceted approach. It necessitates strengthening transparency and accountability mechanisms, promoting participatory action, and fostering collaboration between stakeholders to combat misinformation and disinformation effectively. Ultimately, by understanding the complex interplay of socio-cultural factors, political dynamics, and digital technologies, we can develop more robust strategies to mitigate the impact of information disorders in Africa, especially for the people who are directly impacted by it. Through concerted efforts, we can strive towards a more informed, resilient, and democratic information ecosystem on the continent.

In conclusion, each of these valuable papers offers a holistic perspective on information disorders in Africa, illuminating the multifaceted dynamics at play. By identifying key drivers and patterns, RIA aims to contribute to the global policy discourse on governance strategies to mitigate the impact of information disorders, ultimately fostering a more informed and resilient information ecosystem in Africa and other regions of the Global South.

1 See Wasserman, H., & Madrid-Morales, D. (Eds.). Disinformation in the Global South. Wiley.

2 Iyer N., Nyamwire, B., & Nabulega S. (2020). Alternate realities, alternate internets: African feminist research for a feminist Internet. Association for Progressive Communications. P. 16.

3 Iyer, Nyamwire, & Nabulega (2020). Alternate Realities, Alternate Internets. P. 25.

4 Iyer, Nyamwire, & Nabulega (2020). Alternate Realities, Alternate Internets. P. 19