OP-ED

Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: Weekly Trends in South Africa

By William Bird & Thandi Smith 4 October 2020

(Photo: Oleg Magni/Unsplash)

A crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic creates the perfect opportunity for those who wish to cause confusion, chaos and public harm, mis- and disinformation enables them to do just that. This week we look at the responsibility of prominent people to share credible, verified information, and the importance of digital literacy in an age of online disinformation.

Week18: On doorknobs, fruitcakes, cling-ons and other players in your social media network.

Through Real411, 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 that have largely focused on Covid19. To date, the platform has received 762, with 96% of the complaints resolved. Over the past several weeks, we have been unpacking some of the issues that make disinformation both easy and challenging to identify and combat.

Last week we looked at echo chambers and the role they can play in aiding and abetting disinformation. This week we look at how a networked approach can also work to facilitate disinformation and offer some tips to help spot some of the key players. 

An appealing process

Before we get there, this week one of the people who was the subject of a complaint made a YouTube video calling for others to submit bogus complaints because he wasn’t happy with the outcome of a complaint about his content and felt it was biased. We strongly deny the allegation of bias, but it is useful that he has done so as it gives us an opportunity to outline another key aspect of the Real411 system, which is that the system offers an appeals process.

When designing and building the system, all those involved were alive to the concern of bias. To combat this, each complaint that is reviewed is analysed by a minimum of four experts — three different members of the DCC committee, then at least one member of the secretariat. Often, if a complaint presents challenges, the DCC members and/or the secretariat will have discussions about the difficult elements, ensuring that a final decision is fair.

Each stage of the process is captured on a database and the views of each reviewer, and comments about each complaint, are captured. The same process occurs for the secretariat. One of the reasons the system is built like this is to ensure that if someone feels aggrieved by the outcome, they can lodge an appeal.

Currently, former Deputy Chief Justice Zak Yacoob is serving as the appeals judge for the Real411 process. A person who wishes to appeal against an outcome can approach the Real411 Secretariat in writing with the complaint ID and reason for appeal, and it will be placed before Justice Yacoob, who will make a decision on the complaint. 

Wishing death on Trump

Of course the big news over the past week is US President Donald Trump testing positive for Covid-19. Trump is now reaping the rewards of misinformation in that there has been so much doubt about whether he has it, how ill he actually is or isn’t and when in fact he first tested positive for Covid-19.

This is a useful piece on some of the issues, thanks to his misinformation. Another aspect relevant to our issues around disinformation is the post by Twitter about those who wished death on Trump.

In essence, Twitter says: “Tweets that wish or hope for death, serious bodily harm or fatal disease against *anyone* are not allowed and will need to be removed. This does not automatically mean suspension.” Interestingly, it appears to have been posted in response to a piece in Vice noting that on Facebook you can wish death on Trump as long as you don’t tag him.

“Facebook has different rules for speech focused on celebrities and public figures.” Facebook says it “distinguish[es] between public figures and private individuals because we want to allow discussion, which often includes critical commentary of people who are featured in the news or who have a large public audience. For public figures, we remove attacks that are severe as well as certain attacks where the public figure is directly tagged in the post or comment.”

What this means is that it’s okay to post on Facebook that you hope Trump dies, so long as you do not tag him in the post or “purposefully expose” him to “calls for death, serious disease, epidemic disease or disability”.

Leaving aside for the moment the debate as to which policy might be better and whether they are applied to those who aren’t as famous (some argue they aren’t), the distinction again serves to highlight the importance and value of a system like the Real411, where regardless of the platform, the same tests and standards are applied that are in line with our laws and our Constitution.

We don’t distinguish between public and private figures generally, but certainly there are remedies available for threats made against a person. Redi Tlhabi was in the news after a misogynist scumbag bully made rape threats against her on Twitter. Ms Thlabi is to be commended for her courage in pursuing the matter. Many other women, however, for a variety of different reasons, may not follow through.

No similar complaint wishing death on Trump, for example, has been lodged with the Real411 system. In general, though, Real411 cannot address threats against individuals, except in the instance where they are journalists. Given their critical role, threats against individual journalists can also constitute threats to media freedom.

The challenge posed by the policy differences between the platforms and how they are applied raises a series of issues we will address in another commentary. What is clear, though, is that far too often threats against women are allowed to remain. It seems curious that a public and powerful figure such as Trump can have posts wishing him death removed, but a person with far less power and far less resources will be left to have to deal with threats using their own limited resources. 

Fruitcakes, doorknobs and cling-ons

We have outlined how disinformation works and the role echo chambers play. With those elements, we see that another element of effective disinformation is that the “disinformers” rarely act alone. Frequently they are part of a network of fruitcakes, doorknobs and cling-ons that game the system and tell you what you want to hear – or what they think you want to be exposed to in your digitally walled echo chamber.

The reason for a network is to give their perspective credibility, make it seem like it is a fully fleshed out argument that isn’t being driven by one fruitcake but a range of people who represent different views on a spectrum on the same issue. By using trolls and bots (automated accounts that just repost), they are able to help ensure the algorithms pick up on the content and it gets surfaced on your timelines.

Before we look at the different roles, it is useful to look at how these networks operate on social media. We are lucky to have a group of people who have been doing some excellent analyses for the past couple of years from Andrew Fraser and SuperLinear to our partners at the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (CABC) who produced this excellent report on xenophobia on social media.

It’s well worth following them on social media and also reading their stuff to get a deeper understanding of how networks operate and what they look like. 

The two images below are representations of how a simple tweet can spread across Twitter. The images have been generated using MMA’s internal analysis tool, SMART. SMART is able to follow hashtags, phrases and accounts across Twitter. We can then map retweets and engagements, and begin to understand how information moves and is shaped, and by whom, on Twitter.

The images below show a snapshot over time of two hateful phrases. In both there appear to be clusters, which look a little like the iris of an eye. Spread around them are other little worms, and spider-like links, mostly much smaller. What they show is that the two irises were posts that were the most tweeted, mentioned or retweeted. It gives an indication of how just one post spreads. What other worms show is that those posts received hardly any other retweets or mentions. 

If we were to repeat the exercise with users instead of a phrase, it would show how the network spreads. Then the images may look a lot more like those used by Kyle Findlay here.

Having a basic grasp of how networks work, one can also help spot some of the members. If you have ever said anything controversial on social media, you will see how they hunt in packs. These packs can serve both to disinform and also silence opposing views.

Don’t only believe us, try going to a political party group and voicing a view contrary to that of the party and watch how you will be trashed. One of the techniques of the Bell Pottinger disinformation campaign was to use the packs to especially go after prominent female journalists and threaten and insult them in order to try to silence them. It’s a revolting strategy that sadly continues to be deployed. But here are a few other aspects to look out for.

Often with considered disinformation campaigns there will be a senior figure who knowingly or unknowingly can serve to legitimise the overall premise.

If we look at xenophobia, for example, there are a couple of leaders of smaller parties who have voiced specific ideas about how we need to deal with foreigners. If you look at their posts, they will be strong, but they won’t be in any fear of them being removed, for while xenophobic in emphasis, they are careful not to be out-and-out extreme racists. These people we refer to as the “doorknobs”. They have a handle on the ideas and open the door (wittingly or unwittingly) to the next groups.

The “fruitcakes” post stuff that is out of touch with reality, often heavy on stereotypes, with some conspiracy thrown in (sometimes all conspiracy) and help to make others feel threatened, anxious, fearful or really angry.

They can be joined by others who just stoke the flames, reiterate; like a thug at a dog fight, they will cheer and heighten tensions. Fruitcakes are often real people, but they will go to great lengths to hide their identities and will choose an online persona to help give credence to their crap. See the excellent investigation here where Jean Le Roux reveals the identity of a toxic user.

These users are then helped by the “cling-ons” – no, not the Star Trek Klingons, but the cling-ons (the bits of faeces that are left hanging after wiping), the bits you try hard to get rid of but they just reappear. (Sorry if you were eating while reading, but they too will make you generally gag).

Cling-ons are the risk-takers and the ones who take things to the extreme. They are the ones who will use the k-word, the ones who will call for us to kill Nigerians or as we had this week on Real411, call for an army of 10,000 men to help raid places to remove Nigerians, or they might be so utterly crass that they say something like “proudly xenophobic” in their Twitter handle. The cling-ons will be the ones sacrificed as they will be reported and Facebook and Twitter will remove their stuff, but not before they have served their purpose. 

Such networks work well because they reframe an issue. In the example above, by gaming the algorithms they make it seem like so many people are talking about the issue.

They then seem to offer a series of views on the issues so you don’t think it is just a bunch of idiots and they offer these to you on a spectrum, so you have the political doorknobs who lend credibility, and you may imagine, bring a level of a public mandate given their role, and you think, well, they are clearly worried about this.

Then you have the fruitcakes pushing all sorts of stuff that will skate close to the line of being removed, but they know the lines very, very well and will seldom say something so crass as to be banned. (We have some very astute politicians who do this often, to sound radical without being too inflammatory and irresponsible).

The fruitcakes serve to also simplify solutions – like send them all back to where they came from or send them to Germany where they have available jobs. After seeing them you might feel a lot more concerned and also encouraged to think about some of the easy answers – like “let’s just get rid of them all”.

That’s where the cling-ons come in – they are there to be the ones in the room to rile you up even more to lose all sense of rational perspective, to justify and support rage and hate. By the time the cling-ons are spotted and their posts deleted they have served their function to voice the stuff you are being encouraged to think, that you know can’t be said in public.

The impact of the strategy is that not only does it sound more persuasive and believable, it has also served to reframe the whole issue. So instead of your first response being “hang on a minute this doorknob is supporting some pretty unconstitutional and ridiculous ideas”, it is more likely to be that the point of departure is that the politician sounds like the calm, rational one.

The whole frame of the issue is set in xenophobic terms and no longer one about democracy, diversity and human rights.

So this week, see if you can start to identify the doorknobs, the fruitcakes and the cling-ons, then ask yourself what relation they have to one another, see if they have similar followers, and ask what it might be they are trying to persuade you about.

Then… don’t forget to report content to Real411. DM

Gallery

"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]"

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