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Issued by Shaun Kinnes on behalf of the FW de Klerk Foundation on 20/06/2024



The spread of disinformation and fake news which is geared to influence elections has been examined in the news since the 2016 election of Donald Trump. With democratic elections underway in many countries globally, the rise of artificial intelligence (“AI”) and deepfakes have heightened concerns about disinformation and misinformation. This article examines the importance of cybersecurity in safeguarding voter data, ensuring confidence in the integrity of the election process and that voter perceptions are not externally manipulated. It notes that state security agencies must bolster cybersecurity measures: Strengthening cyber-awareness and capacity is paramount in defending elections against internal and external threats.

Distinguishing Terms:

Disinformation, in this context, is fake news that is employed to undermine a rival state’s elections by dividing its population and undermining electoral candidates in an election campaign. Disinformation, once planted, is further shared and disseminated by people who do not know it is false. (This is known as misinformation.) Deepfakes are realistic visual media representations created with the use of AI.

The success of fake news on social media in swaying voters is up for debate, with a Stanford University study concluding that it was unlikely that it swayed the 2016 American election. However, should this fake news expand to mainstream news networks – such was the case in which a video, depicting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy surrendering, was placed on a Ukrainian news website – one can only conclude it would hold more gravitas. It is submitted that the placement platform of fake news is key.

Fake News and Cyberthreats as Means of Political Warfare Globally:

The emergence of AI-generated deepfakes poses grave risk to democracies, where voters hold the power. It is less likely to be able to change the power dynamics in more totalitarian regimes, where the population lacks the means to change who is in authority.

Malware attacks and viruses may be employed to target and infect election infrastructure, such as voter registration machines and election management systems. This can ultimately lead to data theft, manipulation and system disruption.

Phishing is also easily utilised during election periods, as intruders employ phishing emails as a means of tricking election officials and volunteers into revealing sensitive information and credentials. This may result in unauthorised access to election systems and voter databases.

In the USA, a phone call with an AI voice impersonating President Joe Biden told voters not to vote in the New Hampshire primary election. It urged them to instead save their vote for the upcoming November election. In Africa, Russia (according to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies (“ACSUS”)) is the single largest sponsor of Africa-wide disinformation campaigns (see the image below).

Source: Mapping a Surge of Disinformation in Africa – Africa Center for Strategic Studies

The map above highlights the extent of Russian disinformation in Africa.

Should fake news be placed on mainstream news outlets, i.e. a placement platform with gravitas, one can conclude that it would lead to a loss of trust by the population in media sources. A “liar’s divident” may emerge as a direct result of deepfakes, which is when members of the public distrust information sources on a large scale. This will also allow for anti-government domestic actors to sow mistrust in democratic institutions, such as electoral bodies, destabilising the democracy.

Meanwhile, closer to home, South Africa is facing its own cybersecurity challenges. A report by the cybersecurity firm Check Point paints a grim picture, revealing a surge in cyber-attacks targeting government and military organisations. These attacks, including the use of AI deepfakes, misinformation and disinformation pose significant risks to electoral integrity.

Despite progress in cybersecurity preparedness in the private sector, the South African public sector entities remain vulnerable due to resource constraints and skills shortages. The ongoing cyber-attacks on government institutions underscore the urgent need for collaborative, intelligence-driven approaches to bolster cyber resilience across all sectors.


The Importance of Cybersecurity:

In recent discussions on cybersecurity and electoral integrity, experts have emphasised the growing threat posed by cyber-attacks and disinformation attacks targeting democratic processes worldwide. They underscored the urgent need for collaborative efforts to defend against these evolving threats, particularly as many African countries gear up for crucial elections in 2024.



Electoral integrity, security and cyber systems must be interlinked as a means of safeguarding and ensuring free and fair credible elections. These realities are connected, so responses must be interconnected. Cybersecurity in the information age is vital as a means of also ensuring that populations, more especially voter populations, are safeguarded from fake news to ensure that voters are not influenced into directly or indirectly swinging elections. Elections must be free, fair and credible to give effect to democracy.