Disinformation in a time of 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, as mis- and disinformation enable them to do just that. This week we look at a few of the conspiracy theory posts and also what happens when a complaint falls outside of the mandate of the Real411 system.
Complaints by Topic
Through the Real411 platform, Media Monitoring Africa has been tracking disinformation trends on digital platforms since the end of March 2020. Using the Real411 platform we have analysed disinformation trends which have largely focused on Covid-19.
A time of heightened stress and uncertainty is perfect soil for the manure of conspiracy theories to fertilise bigger fears. In times when there is less chaos it’s a harder sell to persuade people that vaccines are being pushed by evil government/Bill Gates/the Chinese/the West. But when we have a virus and when information changes so frequently it’s a lot more enticing to simply blame an evil force. One of the attractive aspects of conspiracy theories is that they offer simple explanations of complex issues and events.
Want to know why inequality and poverty are such big problems – it’s the lizard people who are making it so. Covid-19 has impacted so many aspects of our lives – you are right to be worried – it is the government playing out their plan to control us through chips in vaccines, or it’s Bill Gates trying to kill Africans, see 579 or it’s the Chinese in cahoots with our government to try to control/kill us through 5G, see 447 or even, it’s the white monopoly capitalists trying to control the economy and make more money for themselves and at the same time destroy black people.
Many of the conspiracy theories have overt race angles. Almost always they are expressions of deep-seated racism. In our context, terms like “the government” quickly become shorthand for “evil blacks”. These are the characters who see a legitimate black government as being out to get them and destroy white people. The flipside, or manure of a different consistency, are those who see people like Bill Gates and others as coming to experiment and use black people as guinea pigs for new colonial control.
What’s powerful is that each of the theories contains grains of truth or, like manure, it really was once something edible and possibly even delicious. Our colonial history and fight with giant pharmaceuticals around HIV and antiretrovirals showed how greed and superiority saw the massive overcharging and exploitation of the pharmaceuticals. In the case of those who see an evil black government, it feeds into the idea of black people being fundamentally incapable of running anything and only out to seek revenge against innocent white people. That there has been so much corruption serves to reinforce the deeply racist ideologies.
Our experience with Real411 thus far has demonstrated that conspiracy theories have social value as they help explain complex and fearful issues, and they have grains of truth in them.
In and of themselves conspiracy theories aren’t necessarily disinformation. Popular ones like the notion that the moon landing was faked are unlikely to cause public harm. But when we face a profound public crisis as we have been since March, real harm can be caused by conspiracy theories. The attacks on cellphone masts in the UK is a clear example. Similarly, people denying that Covid-19 is real, or those who directly contradict evidence-based and scientific public health messages about it, can cause real harm with disinformation. It is these cases the Real411 routinely addresses and deals with.
Conspiracy theories also undermine efforts to ensure people are informed and empowered to do what they can to protect themselves. One of the positives we can take from the crisis has been the increased recognition of the critical role of credible media in informing and providing information to the public.
So what happens when a credible media entity like eNCA actively solicits the views of a conspiracy theorist in one of its programmes? Before we move on, we say eNCA is credible for a number of reasons including: eNCA is a real broadcaster; its offices and details are readily available. It’s journalists adhere to internal news and editorial policies that are broadly in line with general news principles (at least the last ones we had sight of were). eNCA has established complaints processes and they are also a member of the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA). These elements mean that people can and do turn to them for accurate, credible and fair news and current affairs programming.
It’s important to note that although Real411 deals with disinformation, the complaints process has been developed to exist alongside current regulatory authorities set up to deal with complaints related to credible online and broadcast media. When the platform receives such a complaint, it gets sent to the relevant authority. The graphic below shows how these fit together.
About a month ago, Real411 started receiving complaints regarding the flighting of a known conspiracy theorist, David Icke, on an eNCA show titled So What Now. The complaints were submitted before the interview was aired. Two pieces, one by Pierre De Vos and another by Chris Roper, have dealt in a powerful and excellent manner with the freedom of expression and disinformation angles and are well worth rereading.
As the complaints were about an entity that adheres to the BCCSA code, they couldn’t be dealt with in the Real411 system. That a credible media entity, however, should choose to give a known conspiracy theorist, holocaust denialist and Covid denialist a platform in the middle of a global health crisis, beggars belief.
As a general rule, Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) prefers not to take complaints to either the Press Council or the BCCSA as they tend to be after the fact and also adversarial. Normally, we engage with media houses on a regular basis about diverse aspects of coverage. Most commonly, we engage about the portrayal of children and concerns are resolved and greater understanding acquired. In the current instance, when we saw the complaints about the programme we contacted and spoke to the Editor in Chief at eNCA and expressed our deep concern about the programme. eNCA went ahead with the programme.
Disinformation destroys democracy, and given our work in this area we took the decision to lodge a formal complaint with the BCCSA about the programme. Our full complaint can be found here, but in summary, we argue:
MMA submits that the broadcast is a clear example of disinformation pertaining to the Covid-19 pandemic. In this regard, it should be noted that disinformation relates to verifiably false or misleading information created, presented and disseminated for economic gain or to intentionally deceive the public. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines disinformation as “false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumours) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth”. Similarly, the Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “false information spread in order to deceive people”, and the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary defines it as “false information that is given deliberately”.
In sum, therefore, MMA submits that the broadcast was harmful for at least three key reasons: (i) first, the broadcast intentionally disseminated disinformation based on facts that were untrue; (ii) second, the broadcast promoted unlawful conduct that was in violation of the regulations issued under the Disaster Management Act; and (iii) third, by denying the existence of Covid-19 and claiming it to be a scam, the consequence of the broadcast may result in people not following appropriate precautionary and health measures in line with the advice of the relevant authorities.
We anticipate that eNCA will refute our complaint, and we will in turn pursue it. When a credible news channel gives a platform to the likes of David Icke to express his views, with the host concluding “I hope you are as confused as me” it doesn’t just undermine eNCA, but the credibility of all media. Regardless of the outcome, it is essential that the public remain vigilant and call out disinformation as and when they see it.