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Africa

Ghana: A tracking system instead of Internet shutdowns

Countering election manipulation and hate campaigns on social media, a Ghana project shows how citizens can get involved and authorities be persuaded not to block Internet services.

When it comes to discussions about fake news and social media, Jeremiah Sam (38) knows the turf. A former journalist, Sam is program director at Penplusbytes, an Accra-based Ghanaian NGO that promotes citizen participation in good governance though the use of information technology.

He and his team developed the Social Media Tracking Centre, a system that monitors hate speech and false news spread on social media. The system is so effective that Ghanaian security authorities reaffirmed their decision not to block social media sites ahead of and during the country's December 2016 general elections.

Things had looked quite different several months ahead of the polls. Massive protests had broken out after John Kudalor, at the time Inspector General of Police, argued that supporters of various parties would spread hate campaigns and false news via social media and that in turn could trigger violence. It was the same argument used by other African governments when they blocked Internet services during 2016 elections in Gabon, Uganda, Chad, Congo-Brazzaville and Gambia.

Citizens as election observers – thanks to social media

Sam says blocking social media platforms is not the solution. He, together with members from other NGOs, had long discussions with election authorities and were able to convince them the polls would run smoothly without a shutdown.

ghanaische NGO Penplusbytes (DW Akademie/Penplusbytes)

Jeremiah Sam, developer of the Social Media Tracking Centre

"Many security personnel don't know how to work with social media," Sam points out. "They see it as a threat but we're able to show them its many advantages," he says.

Ghana's general elections were held December 7, 2016. For 72 hours in real time a team of specially trained volunteers and experts tracked Twitter, Facebook and other sites using a software that filters keyword trends. The team verified references to irregularities, election fraud or violence and, depending on their focus or severity, passed them directly on to Ghana's Electoral Commission, independent election observers or security forces.

ghanaische NGO Penplusbytes (DW Akademie/Penplusbytes)

Tracking false news and hate campaigns

The team verified a total of 1,800 references to irregularities, election fraud or violence.  They corrected false reports with accurate information and then, depending on the original content or severity, forwarded them directly to Ghana's Electoral Commission, independent election observers or security forces.

Looking back, Sam says the Social Media Tracking Centre, "essentially provided a platform where citizens could become election observers and immediately report irregularities to the authorities."

 

Penplusbyte's Social Media Tracking Centre received support from DW Akademie.