African Election Authorities Issue Guidelines for Use of Social Media in Elections

Mrs. Jean Mensa, Chairperson, Electoral Commission of Ghana

Election Management Bodies (EMBs) in Africa, under the aegis of the Association of African Electoral Authorities (AAEA), have launched a set of principles and guidelines designed to enhance the capacities of EMBs and other electoral stakeholders to leverage the advantages of social media and mitigate the adverse effects of new and emerging digital technologies during elections.

Titled “Principles and Guidelines for the Use of Digital and Social Media in Elections in Africa”, the overarching objective of the human rights-inspired non-binding instrument is to ensure that elections are conducted with utmost integrity, fostering an environment characterised by freedom, fairness, and credibility.

The instrument was developed by the Electoral Commission of South Africa in collaboration with the AAEA and the African Union Commission (AUC), and was officially launched by Deputy President of South Africa, Mr. Paul Mashatile, at a three-day launch event held in Johannesburg, South Africa, from February 27 to 29, 2024.

The development of the Principles and Guidelines was inspired by the recommendations of the Continental Conference for Election Management Bodies held in Cape Town, South Africa, in March 2020 under the theme “Safeguarding Electoral Integrity in the Digital Age: Strategies for Combatting Digital Disinformation”.

The conference, which was jointly organised by the Electoral Commission of South Africa, the AUC and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), noted that, although disinformation and misinformation have existed in offline media like print or analogue broadcast, digital and social media have amplified them, shifting the speed at which information is transmitted, how content is structured, and how people consume and relate to content.

The conference also noted that disinformation and other potential forms of digital harm to human rights have affected the EMBs’ constitutional mandates to organise elections and referenda, and have undermined efforts to promote peaceful and democratic elections.

In November 2022, the General Assembly of the AAEA, held in Maputo, Mozambique, and coordinated by the AUC, endorsed the plan to develop the Principles and Guidelines and mandated the Electoral Commission of South Africa to lead the initiative, while working closely with the AUC and AAEA.

The objectives of the Principles and Guidelines are to:

• Contribute to the integrity of electoral processes in Africa by providing guidance to EMBs and other relevant electoral stakeholders for identifying opportunities to promote access to electoral in-formation and address challenges in dealing with harm to digital human rights, in particular potentially harmful digital contents and business practices that threaten the integrity of electoral processes.
• Foster policy development on digital and social media in elections by EMBs, Regional Economic Communities (RECs) and member states.
• Serve as a resource for digital and social media (including digital messaging services) in their policies and processes dealing with online content relevant to elections in Africa.
• Inform regulatory processes under development or review for digital and social media in the context of elections in a manner that is consistent with international human rights standards and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights.

The framework is designed to facilitate a proactive and informed approach in navigating the complexities inherent in the digital landscape, while ensuring the integrity and fairness of electoral processes.

The document is based on international human rights laws and standards, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, the Organisation of African Unity (OAU)/African Union (AU) Principles for Democratic Elections in Africa, the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, and the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

Other instruments which informed the development of the document are the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection, the African Commission on Human Rights and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) Guidelines on Access to Information and Elections in Africa, the Windhoek +30 Declaration on Information as a Public Good, the ACHPR Resolution on the Protection of Women Against Digital Violence in Africa, the ACHPR Resolution on Business and Human Rights in Africa, and the 2019 Addis Ababa Declaration on Journalism and Elections in Times of Disinformation.

The framework incorporates the fundamental principles of the right to equality and non-discrimination; free, fair and credible elections; freedom of opinion and expression; access to information; freedom of association and assembly; right to privacy; protection of the rights of women in the context of elections; the protection of ethnic, cultural and linguistic rights; and the right to remedy.

It also outlines the obligations of States, EMBs, regulatory bodies, political parties and candidates, African traditional institutions and religious bodies, civil society organisations, journalists and the news media, digital intermediaries, and the digital and social media.

The Guidelines and Principles stress that “all relevant laws should be enforced without discrimination” and emphasise the need for collaboration among relevant stakeholders to guarantee the comprehensive protection and realisation of all rights affected by digital and social media throughout the electoral cycle.