Disinformation amid Covid-19: Weekly trends in South Africa
A crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic creates a perfect opportunity for those who wish to cause confusion, chaos and public harm. In our second instalment of the weekly commentary on disinformation trends, we find a handful of complaints assessed as disinformation, as well as some misunderstood satire, and some strange, yet amusing opinions – but they are just that.
Disinformation and the sharing of disinformation is one of the greatest threats to a democracy, and we continue to witness the dangerous dissemination and sharing of disinformation across various social media and digital platforms.
The Real411 platform has been fully operational since 22 March 2020, and since then we have seen some dangerous disinformation circulating through our social media platforms. Complaints have been submitted to the platform, and action has been taken, often resulting in counter-narratives being issued or content being taken down. From 22 March to 7 June, 429 complaints have been received, 401 of which have been assessed and resolved. Out of the 401 complaints, 153 have been found to be disinformation.
This week, we take a look at complaints received between 1 and 7 June.
A total of 15 complaints were received over this period, three of which were found to be disinformation. Each complaint that is submitted gets assessed by three reviewers – each an expert in their fields, including media, tech and legal. Once a complaint is assessed, it is sent to the secretariat (who is a media lawyer), a final determination is made and further action, if necessary, is recommended.
It is interesting to see where the complaints originate from, in other words, where the instances of alleged disinformation are being shared.
As the data indicates, during the reporting period most complaints were about content being posted on Twitter (five complaints), followed by WhatsApp, (four complaints) and then Facebook (with three complaints). Other platforms had very few complaints during the period, with either one or no complaints. These figures are unusual, as for the period thus far, most complaints – 61% – have come from WhatsApp and Facebook.
Weekly disinformation trends
During the period, and as expected, most of the complaints were about disinformation related to Covid-19. We continue to see complaints relating to the sharing of conspiracy theories about the pandemic being a hoax. An interesting observation during this reporting period is that complaints relating to satirical material were submitted. It is critical that when satire, or any content of a comedic nature, is published, it is made clear that the content is intended as such. It is also important to stress that satire, while possibly offensive, isn’t disinformation. Real411 seeks to ensure that freedom of expression is balanced against the need to combat disinformation, and that where there is uncertainty, or public interest, or satire, the system errs on the side of allowing more freedom of expression.
The content with regard to complaint #462 was found on Instagram and submitted to Real411. In essence, it was encouraging people to break the lockdown regulations by suggesting that the entity could provide a certificate to allow them to go surfing. If people had tried this, they would have been breaking the law. It was found to be disinformation. One of the key risks of this kind of disinformation is that not only does it misinform people about what they can and cannot do, it also encourages direct action for the reader who, in turn, may well have been breaking the law.
We have included this complaint in our weekly commentary as it is an example of how content intended to be satire can be mistaken for mis/disinformation. In this complaint, we have a Facebook page containing satirical information, and this post specifically related to people not being allowed to cry at funerals.
This is a classic example of disinformation – it draws on conspiracies and has a video that seeks to add some level of “credibility” to the post. It suggests that a vaccine will kill sperm in men and make women infertile. Even though there isn’t a vaccine, it is already telling us what it will do, and there is a further suggestion that it will also be used to track us. The key thing about the anti-vaxxers is that they don’t need to prove their case or even convince the reader that they are correct. All the anti-vaxxers need to do is introduce sufficient doubt or levels of fear and anxiety that a person opts not to get vaccinated. It is telling that the person being referenced in the video is a known conspiracy theory peddler.
In this complaint, we see two teachers being identified as having tested positive for Covid-19. It may have been a poor effort by a learner to prevent the school from opening, but in a climate of heightened fear and anxiety about schools opening and operating, this is an especially irresponsible thing to do. Not only could it cause distress to the teachers identified, but it could also cause parents to not send their children back to school – which might well have a range of knock-on consequences.
The final complaint this week is one where it seems so unlikely to be true. It deals with the development of a mask that is able to automatically detect if a person is positive for Covid-19. The mask doesn’t exist – it is something that is being researched and so, while difficult to believe, it is not actually misinformation. It is, however, positive that it was reported to Real411, as the modern default should be for people to be sceptical of content that they receive on social media platforms. DM
William Bird is Director of Media Monitoring Africa. Thandi Smith is Head of Programmes at Media Monitoring Africa.
"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"