South Africa

OP-ED

Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: Weekly Trends in SA

Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: Weekly Trends in SA
Disinformation in the time of Covid-19. (Photo: forbes.co. / Wikipedia)

Week 19: Public officials, the media and disinformation — fire starters or fire extinguishers?

A crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic creates a perfect opportunity for those who wish to cause confusion, chaos, and public harm. 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.

Media Monitoring Africa has been tracking disinformation trends on digital platforms since the end of March. Using the Real411 platform we have analysed disinformation trends that have largely focused on Covid-19. To date, the platform has received 816 complaints, with 93% resolved. For the last few weeks, we have been looking at the different elements of disinformation: how it works, the role of networks and echo chambers, how to spot it and what you can do. This week we look at the flipside: those who are often the target of disinformation but who sometimes wittingly or unwittingly help spread it and encourage it.

There has been a significant spike in complaints about xenophobia. This week we have seen almost 20 complaints submitted. We know from evidence gathered by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change (find the report here) and exposés of some of the characters behind the xenophobia that all is not what it seems – we also know that they work because they tap into hard realities around crime and job losses as well as the deep-seated biases and conservatism of many people. As much as social media platforms can play their role in helping to remove hate speech, disinformation and incitement to violence, those who lead us and those who would like to lead us are often part of the problem. While the coordinated strategies continue to gather pace, the counter-narrative seems muted, and in some cases to only add fuel to the fire. 

Aside from some leaders spouting overtly xenophobic comments, others are typified by their relative silence, with the EFF standing out for taking an overt position of critiquing Afrophobia. Combating xenophobia online cannot only be about seeking to address bad content by removing it – it is essential that it is also combated through strong, progressive rights-based political discourses that are repeated by democratic leaders and institutions of democracy, and are supported by strong, well-resourced social media campaigns pushing similar counter-narratives. It is the responsibility of all elected parties to clearly and unambiguously seek to de-escalate potential violence and narratives that seek to undermine democracy.

Leaders are expected to ensure that they don’t contribute or actively disseminate disinformation, but it is, sadly, becoming the norm that we expect leaders to lie. US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson both lie as a matter of course. While the lies enable them to pursue their agendas, they also serve to undermine public trust in not just them but the institutions they are there to serve and the people they represent. We saw a clear example of this in the last week when it was announced that Trump had tested positive for Covid-19. Inconsistent reports from official sources (the White House and Trump’s physician) about Trump’s health and condition simply aided the confusion and doubt, causing mistrust of supposedly credible sources. Conflicting reports from official sources also create the perfect storm, making it far easier for those spreading disinformation to do just that. Following the few days after the mixed messages to the public, reports of misinformation spiking across online platforms seemed to dominate the story (as seen here).

To be clear, we have Magashule leaking the story – clearly stating it will happen and denying it is a rumour. Then it is denied, and suddenly Magashule’s lawyers say they will investigate the source of the rumours. First, a tip for his legal team – contact your client and ask him where he got the information – but then also, if it was a certainty as expressed by Magashule, why does his lawyer refer to them as rumours? 

Closer to home, last week we saw a story being broken by Independent Media (IM) about the imminent arrest of ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule. In the original story, they confirmed that they had spoken directly to Magashule, who confirmed that the Hawks were going to arrest him. In the same story, the IM journalists also noted that they had spoken to “sources inside the Hawks”, who confirmed Magashule was among those due to be arrested this month. The SABC only started to run the story after they too had spoken to Magashule’s office, who confirmed the warrant was imminent. Other media then reported on the same story, citing “media sources” who had reported the arrest. In other words, they were relying on the stories by Independent Media and SABC. Almost immediately there were calls from Magashule’s supporters for him to be left alone as he was an innocent victim of an evil conspiracy. The story is a dog’s breakfast. 

No sooner had the story been reported, than the SABC got official comment from the Hawks, who denied that there was a warrant of arrest for Magashule. Apparently, according to the SABC story, Magashule’s “…attorney, Victor Nkwashu, says he will write to all relevant authorities to ascertain the source of rumours that the arrest of his client is imminent”.  Yes, really. Leaving aside legitimate concerns about why Independent Media leaked the story, as well as concerns about the ethics and motivation of the journalists involved, what is clear from the IM story and the SABC story is that they both had direct confirmation that the source of the story was Magashule himself.  The IM story: “ ‘I’m aware. I said it’s going to be a Hollywood style type (of) arrest. They shouldn’t spin it now,’ Magashule said shortly before midnight on Tuesday.” 

Yet, as soon as the story was clearly disputed by the Hawks and called fake news: “Hawks spokesperson Hangwani Mulaudzi has confirmed that various media reports detailing the alleged arrest warrant for Magashule is [sic] fake news.”

We suddenly see Magashule’s lawyer saying he will seek to “investigate the source of the rumours”. 

To be clear, we have Magashule leaking the story – clearly stating it will happen and denying it is a rumour. Then it is denied, and suddenly Magashule’s lawyers say they will investigate the source of the rumours. First, a tip for his legal team – contact your client and ask him where he got the information – but then also, if it was a certainty as expressed by Magashule, why does his lawyer refer to them as rumours? 

There are a number of political dimensions to this story that have already been analysed and written about, like this one. The key issue around disinformation is that we see how a senior political figure deliberately misled the media about an arrest and then how some media wittingly or unwittingly played a key role in further spreading the story. 

What makes the story more challenging is that the Hawks may well arrest Magashule. The point though is that at the time there was no warrant of arrest. This is another aspect of disinformation that makes it such a complicated issue to combat – something that may be false/fake at the time that is then deliberately spread to cause confusion, and often harm, could in fact become true later on.

The lesson for all media, however, is clear – Magashule can no longer be believed. If he seeks to break any such story in the future, the media will have to ensure that they have a number of independent (as in not directly linked to Magashule) sources to verify anything he says. As much as it is a huge blow to his credibility, it also poses a real challenge for the ANC. That is their problem though – what it illustrates for the public is that we have a senior public figure who is involved in deliberately misleading the public – ie, spreading misinformation. We need our media to ensure they do not succumb to aiding the spread and giving misinformation credibility by reporting on it. For the public, it sets another low bar for trust in leaders. Tragically, it isn’t only the ANC whose trust and credibility are undermined – all leaders are tainted by association. DM

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