South Africa

OP-ED

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

A Human Sciences Research Council survey revealed that there is fatigue about Covid-19. (Photo: Unsplash / Sara Kurfess)

The Covid-19 pandemic creates a perfect opportunity for those who wish to cause confusion, chaos and public harm, using misinformation and disinformation. This week we look at Covid-19 fatigue and its implications.

Week 21: Covid-19 fatigue

Through Real411, 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 which have largely focused on Covid-19. To date, 888 complaints have been submitted to the platform since March, 97% of which have been assessed by experts, and action taken. 

Last week a Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) survey revealed that there is fatigue about Covid-19. Carin Runciman, associate professor at the Centre for Social Change, was quoted as saying: “The findings point to a worrying growth in pandemic fatigue.” 

There can be little doubt that as we approach the end of what has been at best a tumultuous year, and for most a spectacularly appalling year, it is hardly surprising that there is Covid fatigue. South Africa at the best of times offers more surprises and twists than a drunk butterfly seeking to deliver a chainsaw, which is to say we have epidemic levels of violence, child abuse and extreme inequality, combined with corruption and a litany of other issues. In short, we are a disinformers’ paradise – our divisions, fears and post-traumatic stress make us superb targets for disinformation. Fatigue, though, presents some real challenges for disinformers.

We know that disinformation tends to work best when emotions and tensions are running high. 

On the one hand, fatigue means people are less likely to expend the emotional energy needed to help the spread of disinformation. So, as the amount of coverage and focus on Covid-19 decreases so too does the amount of disinformation about Covid-19. 

Over the last week, rather than there being an explosion of Covid-19 disinformation, much focus was on #SARS and #SARSMUSTEND – referring to calls for the end of a Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Nigeria responsible for the assault of Nigerians. There were a series of instances of misinformation relating to this issue, as outlined by the BBC. This isn’t to say there was no disinformation about Covid-19. Covid-19 denialists were still active pushing their rubbish, or seeking to create controversy when all that was happening was new evidence being presented. The recent Covid-19 focus has been more on the possibility of a second wave and also news that the Minister of Health, Dr Zweli Mkhize, had tested positive for Covid-19. 

An example of the type of complaints assessed as disinformation is complaint #953, as shown below. 

This particular complaint relates to claims that Covid-19 is not a real pandemic, and that the response to it has been exaggerated, including rigged results and faulty testing kits. This type of disinformation related to Covid-19 has been typical throughout the period.

The flipside to fatigue for disinformers is that while the disinformation is less likely to spread as far and wide, people are less likely to be as critical. When tired it’s much easier to fall for something, because we don’t have our wits fully about us. So, yet again, the dark forces have another opening to exploit. 

Two key findings of the HSRC survey raise red flags for us. The first: 

“Four in ten adults believe the threat of the Coronavirus is exaggerated. During the hard lockdown, in April, about a third (31%-33%) believed that the threat posed by the pandemic had been overstated. By September, this had grown to 41%,” said the HSRC.

It is not clear what the cause of this increase is, but it could be due to the relatively low reported fatalities, or the spread of mis- and disinformation about Covid-19.

The second HSRC finding that raised a red flag for us was that one in three adults in SA do not wear masks when they leave the home. According to Runciman, “The greater number of people that do not comply with public health measures, such as wearing masks in public, the greater the likelihood of a second wave in infections, as is currently occurring in Europe and the US.”

The finding that fewer people are fearful of Covid-19 is positive to the extent that fear is generally the friend of disinformation and the enemy of knowledge and understanding. It can, however, also cause people to become more lax in their approach to risky behaviour. It is essential that accurate, evidence-based information is disseminated. Our media must continue to cover Covid-19 and find new ways of sharing the critical information. People should also be encouraged to continue to share accurate information and maintain their guard and scepticism against assertions that the threat is over or has heavily subsided. 

It is essential that we remember those who have lost loved ones in this time, that we honour their loss by ensuring we take reasonable and tolerable precautions, follow advice from our National Institute for Communicable Diseases, the World Health Organisation and our own ministerial advisory experts.

Fatigue can also lead to shorter fuses, and disinformers are delighted when we lose our tempers. So, as we enter the last week of October, remember: don’t feed the trolls – if a disinformer or their bro clubs come after you, smile and wave.

Finally, in a state of fatigue, people need kindness and compassion. DM

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