South Africa has a very violent and disturbing history, as such, whenever violence in South Africa is mentioned one sometimes gets flashbacks of seeing mellow yellows in their neighborhood roaming and shooting teargas. As such, every time xenophobia and attacks on foreign nationals are rumored to be happening in South Africa, it is always a concern and sad.

Having said that, the last week of August 2019 and the first week of September 2019 were rather odd weeks in my view. I observed initially what looked like justified anger as South Africa does generally have a xenophobia problem but something just didn’t make sense.

There’s a good reason why all that was happening during those two weeks in 2019 and especially the social media reaction didn’t make sense to me.

Using technology to fight xenophobia in South Africa

During 2015, when South Africa was experiencing yet another wave of xenophobic attacks, myself and my then business partner, Peter Peele, asked ourselves what can we do with our skills to help stop these attacks.

We ended up distilling, if I remember vaguely, down the primary problem to being a criminal one, i.e. those carrying out these attacks (e.g. assault, murder, damage to property, etc.) were criminals that needed to be reported to the police and arrested.

One of the slides of a presentation I gave in 2016 to share the lessons learned crowdsourcing and crowd mapping xenophobia related incidents in South Africa.

As such, we ended up putting together a crowdsourcing platform we called Report Xenophobia that also had an emergency SMS line for refugees to message when in distress or to report incidents and request help. We (tried to) linked up with the South African Police Service and other stakeholders but that’s a different side of the story (ended up up working with UNHCR and other stakeholders).

As the data came in it was verified, we also scraped the web for xenophobia related news stories in South Africa (dating back to 2008) and verified the incidents. Also incorporated was data from the UNHCR call center of xenophobia incidents in South Africa.

From this data, correlations and patterns started emerging.

The role misinformation plays in inciting violence

One of the interesting things I learned back then was that misinformation (this is before the word fake news became popular) played an important role in inciting some sections of South African society into attacking foreign nationals.

One would read texts about fliers circulating in communities advising them that they should not buy from shops owned by foreign nationals in the townships as, for example, the food will make them ill. Other times, service delivery protests would almost like clockwork spill over into attacks on foreign-owned shops in the townships.

So, as such, since that period from 2015 to 2017 when we ran the platform, my mind is tuned in to look for facts and not go with any narrative except for real hard facts and seek those facts.

Now defunct, Report Xenophobia used to collect and crowdmap xenophobic incidents in South Africa from 2015 to 2017.

Now, back to explaining the events that took place during the last week of August 2019 and the first week of September 2019.

The attacks did happen to start in Pretoria after a South African taxi driver was shot dead by a foreign national after apparently trying to stop drug dealers (this story is verified and the driver was buried in Soshanguve this past weekend). After this, chaos ensued last week in the capital city as some South Africans decided to attack foreign nationals in retaliation.

These protests and attacks spilled over to Johannesburg starting 1 September 2019. Shops were burnt (of both foreign nationals and South Africans). Then, this is when things start becoming curious.

Videos, which I had seen previously as part of our platform and old photos which we had from previous incidents in previous years, started circulating on social media as proof that South Africans a butchering and killing foreigners. This was false (given the photos and videos being given as proof).

At first slowly, then suddenly, there was mass hysteria triggered and ignited by celebrities and other famous people across the continent who, without verifying anything, all ran with the same narrative, “South Africans are killing foreign nationals (especially Nigerians) en masse.”

This was odd to me, but I waited for the statistics.

Could Artificial Intelligence be the answer to fake news?

Just like I suspected, the police minister and Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s President, on announced that officially 300 people were arrested and being questioned regarding the protests. More importantly, 10 people were killed during these attacks, 8 of them were South African, only 2 were foreign nationals. Now that doesn’t fit in with the popular narrative (note, South Africa does have a xenophobia problem but this time things seemed to be exaggerated).

While playing the anti-fake-news crusader on Twitter during those weeks in 2019, it dawned on me that given that social media is the main method through which fake news and especially fake images and fake videos are distributed, perhaps Twitter and Facebook need to implement a feature that automatically do reverse image search on photos posted on their platforms and annotates such images and videos with links of where previously they were posted.

This alone could reduce the amount of fake news dramatically and it will also have an important second-order effect - people will want to avoid embarrassment and will double-check before posting anything.

After all, maybe Artificial Intelligence and image recognition can play a good role in the fight against fake news.

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