South Africans are no strangers to the concept of fake news or disinformation circulating on social media. But they often feel helpless about their inability to correctly identify or combat it.
The last couple of years have been a particularly rich field for disinformation-mongers, with elections and Covid-19 playing on people’s fears and making them easy targets for fake news.
It’s by no means a new phenomenon, though, explains Billy Einkamerer, founder and MD of Assemble, which developed the Real411 site and app (www.real411.org.za) to help put a lid on disinformation and other digital harms.
As a long-time service provider for Media Monitoring Africa, Assemble gets involved in making technology work for whatever project Media Monitoring Africa has in hand.
“We were becoming more aware of the problem of fake news and disinformation a couple of years ago,” Einkamerer says. “Then, in 2019, we built Real411 to help deal with the disinformation around the national and regional elections held that year.”
It worked so well that, following the elections, Assemble and Media Monitoring Africa decided to make the system more widely available, focusing on other digital harms, like incitement to violence hate speech and harassment.
They didn’t plan the timing, but it turns out that Real411 was just what was needed when Covid-19 swept the planet.
“We soon spotted a lot of instances relating particularly to Covid-19, so we quickly ramped up our ability to report on a lot of disinformation.”
The benefits of the system quickly became known and it’s now endorsed by the South African government as a route for reporting and combatting fake news.
Although fake news is the main target of Real411, it is also used to intervene when there are attacks on journalists, instances where media freedom is being contravened, hate speech and more.
“Media Monitoring Africa is obviously very interested in anything related to the media and disinformation, as well as being focused on human rights, freedom of speech and constitutionality,” Einkamerer says.
“So we had to build the system in such a way that it is a means of enabling the public to act against disinformation and that means the same content is assessed by the same standards regardless of platform. A lot of thought went into the design to ensure that it is fair and transparent, and that any issues can be traced back. There is even an appeal mechanism.”
When it was decided that the local government elections would take place in November this year, Assemble worked with the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) to improve the platform for combatting fake news.
The company was able to integrate Real411 with the IEC’s own systems to quickly escalate elections-related complaints to the IEC.
How it works
Real411 helps to combat fake news by giving online users a mechanism for lodging complaints or flagging disinformation.
“This part of the system allows anyone to report any incident,” Einkamerer explains.
He offers the example of a user receiving an elections-related WhatsApp message from a friend or relative, telling them they have to wear a mask and take their own pen to the election venue or they may be denied the right to vote.
“The part of this message about taking your own pen isn’t actually true,” he points out. “But even though the person sending the message means well, it could inadvertently cause a lot of damage. People might see that and, if they don’t have a pen on them, they might not go to vote.
“So this kind of disinformation, which could have a direct impact on the election outcome, has to be combatted.”
To flag something as possible disinformation, the user takes a screen grab of the message (or social media post, or Web entry), goes to the Real411 app, and logs it as an issue.
Users are asked to provide their contact details, but these are always kept private, Einkamerer says.
Once the flagged post is reported, it goes into the system where it is then evaluated to determine if it is true or fake.
Media Monitoring Africa has a group of volunteer experts, who access the back-end system, or portal, and see the incidents as they are logged.
Each incident undergoes three separate examinations by media, legal and technical experts, who generate three reports.
“Each of the adjudicators looks at the incident and the information around it to determine whether it should be considered as disinformation,” Einkamerer explains.
“Importantly, these are actual people – not an algorithm. And they are vetted subject matter experts. So the legal person is an actual lawyer, the technical person holds a responsible position in a technology company or has expertise in the area.
“Each incident is vetted by three experts, and also judged against well-defined criteria that allow for a determination about whether something is fake news or disinformation.”
The decision, and the commentary around how it was reached, is posted on a Real411 dashboard, and the results are communicated back to the original complainant.
Einkamerer believes Real411 was the first such application in the world. “We attended a European discussion on the effects of disinformation in the context of the pandemic, and we realised that most European nations at that stage didn’t have anything similar to what we had built here,” he says.
One of Real411’s standout features is the independent verification at the back-end, and the ability to justify a decision to declare something as disinformation. “The system was properly designed and well thought-out,” Einkamerer says.
Local government elections 2021
Its sound design stood Real411 in good stead during the 2021 local government elections.
Once the Constitutional Court determined that the elections would go ahead in 2021, and a date was set, Assemble and the IEC got to work on the issue of fake news.
“We built in integration with an application programming interface (API) into the IEC’s system so if anything related to the IEC or the election came up, we could simply push a button and the ruling was forwarded to the IEC. They could then either take action or advise us on how to handle it,” Einkamerer says. “Reponses were automatically sent back to Real411 via the same API so there was little or no delay in the process.”
In an interesting sidebar, one of the political parties contesting the election complained that, by calling content disinformation, the IEC was stepping outside of its mandate.
For elections complaints, then, they were assessed to the same standards as previously. But this was only part of an investigation that the IEC is mandated to carry out. Where necessary, complaints could then be forward to the platforms for additional consideration.
The AWS advantage
The Real411 app is built on the AWS platform, using many of the cloud provider’s services.
“We built the system using the serverless architecture using various technologies, including AWS Lambdas,” Einkamerer explains.
AWS Lambda is an event-driven, serverless computing platform. It is a computing service that runs code in response to events and automatically manages the computing resources required by that code.
“There are a lot of other AWS services that fit together to make up the system. It is properly AWS-native.
“And, because AWS provides all these services as part of the platform, they were used to do much of the heavy lifting for us.”
For instance, Real411 uses Textract to extract any text from images submitted with the complaint, inserting this into an associated text field that assists with keeping track of complaints and linking associated complaints to one another to avoid duplication of effort.
Amazon Textract is a machine learning service that automatically extracts text, handwriting and data from scanned documents that goes beyond simple optical character recognition (OCR) to identify and extract data from forms and tables.
The systems also makes used of artificial intelligence tools to recognise images or portions of images. “So if an image has a bicycle and a basketball, it will proactively put those in tag fields which experts can add to or edit as they see fit. This helps to make the assessment of complaints much quicker.”
Because it’s hosted on AWS, the system is also highly scalable and can easily handle a sudden increase in load.
Into the future
The election is over, but the war against fake news continues. Going forward, Einkamerer believes Real411 will become even more relevant.
“By going through a considered process like the one offered by Real411 takes fake news out of the realm of opinion,” he says. “The original complainant will get an email or message linked to the outcome and a graphic which they can then send to people spreading the disinformation, and which carries the weight of credibility.”
Community members are urged to use the platform to report suspected fake news or disinformation.
“In fact, we’ve gamified this aspect of it a bit,” Einkamerer says. “If a particular user starts reporting a lot of things they get a badge, with different badges for types of frequent engagement. This way, we are building a community of spotters who report when they see disinformation happening.”
FD and AWS collaboration
Assemble collaborates with First Distribution and AWS as a soon-to-be AWS Select Tier Partner.
The company is 11 years old, with 16 staff members, and has completed many of the AWS certifications.
Having started life as a traditional Web-development company, Assemble moved to cloud-based solutions in 2018. “We found we could build faster and break less – in short, we loved it,” Einkamerer says.
As a happy and committed AWS partner, Assemble broadened its horizons when it signed up with First Distribution.
“They helped us to get all of our certifications, and to understand what being a partner is all about.”
About First Distribution
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