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“As we approach elections, we must fortify our defences against disinformation and influence campaigns” – Ngala Desmond Ngala, Country Project Manager #defyhatenow Cameroon

He was speaking on the sidelines of the ALL #AFFCameroon Conference on countering disinformation during election period, organised in Yaounde on March 27 & 28, 2024

#defyhatenow initiative is organising a conference on elections and disinformation in Yaounde this week. First things first, what inspired the focus of this event which brings together over 300 participants? 

The #defyhatenow initiative is implemented in several countries in Africa, particularly in conflict-hit and conflict-prone regions. Cameroon is approaching an election year in 2025, and we have learnt from past experience that we do not need to wait till that time. We therefore decided to spur public discourse on elections, looking at it before, during and after the voting process, by accompanying Cameroonians to learn to fulfil their civic responsibilities, with focus on the bigger picture. This year, we seek to mobilise relevant stakeholders in view of working towards socio-political stability, good governance, democracy and peace in Cameroon during the pre-electoral, electoral and post-electoral periods. This conference is therefore intended to be a starting point for a series of activities that will be carried out in the run-up to the presidential, legislative and municipal elections in Cameroon. We are working on proposing more effective, preventive, and reactive responses to guide future efforts to protect electoral integrity and prevent electoral violence. Building on the success of the maiden edition in November 2022, this year’s Conference aims to equip participants with the tools and strategies needed to counter disinformation, promote fact-checking, and defend digital rights in the face of mounting threats.

One of the main methods we have been using to prepare youth is the Africa Factchecking Fellowship – #AFFCameroon. The quarterly training is intended for journalists, bloggers and community leaders on ways to counter disinformation using online factchecking tools. Launched in January 2020 with just seven fellows for cohort 1, today we have equipped over 200 Fellows through nine cohorts. We realised based on their experiences that most communities have access to internet and electricity, but lack media and information literacy. This is one of the factors that can explain the widespread disinformation, since people easily accept everything they see online as true. With elections in view, we already know this will be rife. 

Part of the theme borders on digital threats to elections in Cameroon. What would you say are some of those threats?

For any keen social media user, you would realise that at particular periods of the day, or when a major national event is approaching, there is usually a trend on social media. Either it is breaking news from doubtful sources, or a particular piece of content with exactly the same syntax, errors or photos flood cyberspace. People get excited when they see trendy news, but experts like us have the ability to know simple or harmless information that goes viral; and one that does so with an ulterior motive. election period is a critical stage in any country’s history. This process is also marked by an influx of information, but this needs to be processed in order to make informed decisions. Understanding why, as a Cameroonian, you need to register to vote, who to vote for, how to organise yourself on the d-day, what to do after the declaration of results, etc. requires information. The manner in which people behave throughout this process depends significantly on the type of information they receive, which could be true or false. 

The greatest digital threat to elections is in the human mind, especially when it is not prepared to filter the type of information it receives. It is common to see people forward information in WhatsApp groups or Facebook in the name of “verifying”. The moment you forward any unconfirmed information, you are helping to feed the intent, which is usually negative. The moment people don’t detach themselves from their emotions and receive everything they see with a critical eye, we are in grave danger. Until we decide to take it upon ourselves to be each other’s keeper and seek to collectively develop our nation, we would easily contribute in sharing information that can destroy rather than build. 

Should digital platform creators want us to post without control, they could have made it possible for every text to appear immediately online. But no, there is a button you always need to press for the post to go online. What am I trying to say: that last button you need to click on to like, comment, share or post is a brake to enable the internet users to verify and be sure before they click. Unfortunately, we see people who are faster to forward than to check. Should this not be checked, we would have an uncontrolled flow of information which can rather lead to chaos than ease the election process. 

Another threat we see is the sponsorship of pseudo accounts to either send out political agendas or attack political opponents. The Internet has brought a lot of development, as we can see, but has also introduced other forms of inconvenience. Where people only had access to a limited geographical area, today they can be viewed all over the world. In the same way, disinformation that was limited to a small area today spreads fast at the speed of light. Our advice is for every internet user to be watchful of their words and actions during the election period, especially as we know words have the ability to build or destroy. 

How do you think these threats can be effectively contained?

There are several ways we can counter digital threats, especially during elections. It starts with an individual consciousness and moves to a collective desire to do no harm. Fair-play should be the key-word, i.e., running elections on level ground. Unfortunately, what derives from Cameroon is that politics is run along tribal and religious lines. As a result, rather than using development oriented ideas to campaign, we see direct attacks on opponents built on their political or religious leanings. As Cameroonians who love our country, we need to think about the future. The actions we take today to solve a problem, may only turn out to become a greater problem tomorrow. For example, when you attack an opponent because of their tribe, you can never tell which tribe your children may choose to marry in the future. As a worker, you do not know where you will be transferred to one day, and it just might be in the community you tried to destroy in the past through disinformation. 

When we go out for sensitization or training sessions, we always remind people we meet of how they admired their generations before them. This helps guide them to reflect on what image they expect the future generation to have of them, because a country can only grow better as a result of the policies implemented, the actions of its people, or the way we choose to treat each other. 

The other side of the debate will touch on disinformation during the election period. How serious can the situation be and with what consequences?

When we look at how elections have been tampered with in countries around the world, we are obliged to anticipate this in Cameroon. For example, our neighbour Nigeria in 2015 and Kenya in East Africa during the 2017 elections witnessed influence campaigns from organisations like Cambridge Analytica in swaying elections via digital platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp. These digital battlegrounds have become arenas where narratives are shaped, alliances forged, and public opinion moulded. 

In a continent where digital access is burgeoning, and internet usage is dynamic—Cameroon stands at a crossroads. The upcoming 2025 presidential, legislative, and municipal elections loom large, casting shadows of uncertainty over peace and social stability. We not only need to access information, but ensure it is useful. We cannot ignore the lessons of history, as seen in the 2018 post-electoral crisis spurred by tribal undertones that has been fueling tensions both online and offline. This has created a pseudo ethnic and political divide, leading to the emergence of “Tontinard” vs “Sardinard” rhetoric. For a country that is gearing towards emergence by 2035, such discussions are not healthy. As we can imagine ahead of 2035, the widespread use of fake news and hate speech, if left unaddressed, will inundate the digital sphere, further polarising society and exacerbating tensions. The stakes are higher now. As we approach elections, we must fortify our defences against disinformation and influence campaigns, as it is already being observed.

How can practicing journalists contribute to efforts aimed at combating disinformation and even hate speech circulated during such moments?

The first thing any responsible journalist can do is get their facts right. We are humans, so errors can occur. Many people think that disinformation is only on social media, but I will shock them by saying that mainstream media too is falling into its trap. The best way to reduce the error margin is by verifying over and over. Do not publish until you have all the facts to back your claim. It is a risky choice to destroy lives and families just because you want to break the news. The moment a journalist or press outlet loses its credibility, it is bound to die. 

We have a media for peace approach at #defyhatenow and we have been supporting the press in their work daily.  But this is not enough; there is a need for a structural reform of media organs and associations, with clearly defined plans of actions addressing such issues. Unfortunately, the economic outlook does not give room for excellence, rather we see individuals who are trained, aware of the risks involved but yet indulge in spreading fakenews in their media in order to “survive”. 

Ideally, media organs need to broaden their scope and occupy the digital space. There is a common saying that nature abhors a vacuum. The rise of citizen journalism should not be completely considered as a threat, rather a call for media organs to rise from slumber. By adapting their work to evolving trends, it will not only make them more competitive in the digital age, but will equally enhance trust with their audience. There are people that do not believe any news, except when it comes from a particular media they are attached to. The moment this trust is breached, it is usually impossible to regain it fully. 

This conference is certainly to lay the groundwork for continuous reflections on the issues in focus. What are the major outcomes you are envisaging? 

In February, we organised a multi-stakeholder workshop to discuss joint strategies to counter hatespeech in media and on social media. The event was presided by the Minister of Communication, Rene Emmanuel Sadi, who expressed the government’s support of such initiatives. Based on the key recommendations, we designed this conference, reaching out to a wider audience. We intend through advocacy with public authorities, to explore avenues for collaboration in combating disinformation effectively, while promoting greater access to information. We are glad to see fellow civil society organisations join us in this collective strive for safe digital spaces during election period.  

We also envisage engaging election bodies like Elections Cameroon, political parties, public institutions by offering our expertise to assist during this crucial period in the life of our country. It is only through a synergy of actions that we can hope to achieve sustainable results on the ground. We are an on-the-boot organisation, our team is young and we work with a host of local relays who can gladly contribute to fostering a peaceful socio-political atmosphere as all eyes are watching to see Cameroonians take their destiny in their hands.

Mass education and sensitisation is needed during this period, the reason why we invited media associations to participate in the discussions. Through their press outlets, they are better placed to push the messages further to places we cannot reach physically. Their role is pivotal during such crucial moments, especially in helping shape the future of our country. We expect participants upon return to their respective communities, to implement what they have learnt in Yaounde.

How do you intend to capitalise on some of the strong recommendations of the conference? 

Our role at #defyhatenow is mostly to design, then let the actors and stakeholders directly involved to engage themselves. We will continue discussions in small groups that will be organised based on selected thematic, towns and areas of interest. But we do not want to end within the four corners of a conference hall; the real work is on the field. We intend to reach out to identified stakeholders through different stages of the electoral process, and share our findings with the powers that be.  

What should the government and other stakeholders such as civil society actors and politicians do to instill a culture of peace in times of election?

The government should ensure electoral bodies are independent, especially as their role in ensuring free and fair elections is what will determine the future. All parties involved in the electoral process should be impartial and free from political interference. The only way to build a sustainable society is by engaging all stakeholders at the relevant levels to ensure ownership of the process. We should not wait until the voting date reaches before we start rushing helter scatter.    Public institutions need to conduct voter education campaigns to inform citizens about the electoral process, their rights, and the importance of peaceful participation. Political parties and candidates should ensure the same opportunities and treatment so that they can engage in constructive dialogue and peaceful resolution of disputes.

As civil society actors, we can support by continuing our work to counter false information and propaganda that can incite violence or manipulate public opinion. This can be done through public awareness campaigns and fact-checking initiatives. Political leaders and parties should publicly commit to peaceful and fair electoral processes, condemning violence and hate speech. Let parties educate their members on responsible behaviour before, during and after elections. We have a collective responsibility to uphold the rule of law, including respecting electoral results and using legal channels to address grievances. By engaging in ethical campaigning that focuses on policies and ideas rather than personal attacks or incitement, we are laying a solid foundation that will ensure generalised development.

Civil society organisations stand a better chance to monitor the electoral process, observe polling stations, and report any irregularities or incidents of violence. But before that, we need to engage our communities in peacebuilding activities, such bottom – up approaches foster dialogue, tolerance, and understanding among diverse groups. We need to educate citizens about their legal rights and responsibilities during elections, including how to report electoral violations. Media has a key role to play too, by adopting media for peace, unbiased reporting, which plays a crucial role in shaping public opinion and perceptions.

It is only when different actors and stakeholders share their expertise in a coordinated manner, by working together, that we can all contribute to the creation of an environment where elections are conducted peacefully, fairly, and with integrity.

Compiled by Laure Nganlay

Interview published in Cameroon Insider Newspaper is available here

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