South Africa

OP-ED

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

Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: Weekly Trends in South Africa
(Photo: Unsplash / Engin Akyurt)

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

Week 21: Weekly trends – when credible systems work

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 which have largely focused on Covid19. To date, 911 complaints have been submitted to the platform since March 2020, 96% of which have been assessed by experts, and action taken.  

 

 This week we have seen complaints submitted relating to general scams, conspiracy theories and misinformation about a “second wave” of Covid19 infections. Complaints such as these have been a common trend throughout the Covid19 pandemic and continue to cause confusion, instil fear, and create doubt in credible institutions. The complaint below, complaint #956, is a far too common type of scam, attempting to gather people’s personal data for monetary gain.

Playing their part

 Our media system works, broadly because media that are credible and offer quality journalism have all signed and agree to adhere to standard principles of ethical practice and journalism. Where the media don’t adhere to these principles, there are mechanisms that can be used to complain.

It’s why Real411 doesn’t deal with complaints about credible media or media that subscribe either to the Press Council or to the Broadcast Complaints Commission of South Africa (BCCSA). One of the most positive elements to arise from the Covid-19 crisis has been to highlight the critical role of the media in a crisis such as a pandemic.

Most witnessed a significant increase in audiences, viewers, listeners and readers. We have seen how, in times of crisis, the public needs credible information. Sure, it also needs the government to communicate on an ongoing basis, but fundamentally the media showed they help people understand and discern the real from the rubbish.

The crisis has also shown how the media aren’t just there in a watchdog role to hold the powerful accountable and expose wrongdoing, but that in a crisis they have an essential role to play in helping people navigate and understand the elements of the crisis.

Media, and journalism, are also critical in the fight against disinformation. It is precisely because of this that when the media do get things wrong it needs correction. Recently eNCA and e.tv, in the programme “So What Now”, carried an interview with conspiracy theorist David Icke.

A quick internet search will reveal that he is linked to Covid-19 and holocaust denialism. That they decided to have Icke as a guest, knowing full well beforehand that he was spreading disinformation, is mind boggling. That they opted not to meaningfully challenge him was even more unacceptable.

Perhaps there was some notion it would add controversy to have him as a guest. Sure. But it’s a bit like thinking you can get a party going by setting a house on fire. Fundamentally, it suggests a profoundly lazy, unthinking approach to the content. Chris Roper wrote this piece about it at the time, which acerbically sets out just why it was such a bad idea.

That it was broadcast on a credible news channel undermines the credibility not only of the programme, but the entire channel. While the host and producer should shoulder some of the blame, serious questions need to be raised about the editorial failure that gave the go-ahead to run the interview. 

Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) submitted a complaint to the BCCSA about the interview. The full ruling can be found here. eNCA and e.tv were found to have breached the code and unless eNCA and e.tv appeal against the decision they will broadcast an apology on Wednesday 4 November. The apology as stipulated by the BCCSA will read: 

“On 22 and 23 July 2020, eNCA and e.tv broadcast an interview with Mr David Icke, known as a conspiracy theorist, on the show titled “So What Now?”. In that interview, Mr Icke set forth his theories about the Covid-19 pandemic, which included false information claiming the pandemic to be a hoax and a scam and that there was no virus.

“Media Monitoring Africa complained that the show breached the relevant broadcasting codes in a series of respects. Its complaint has now been upheld by the Broadcasting Complaints Commission of South Africa, which has held that the show breached the codes. This was because the show contained views expressed which were not based on any facts truly stated or fairly indicated and referred to and thus exceeded the limits of freedom of expression. 

“Both eNCA and e.tv do not agree with or support the views expressed by Mr Icke relating to the existence of Covid-19 which continues to be a pandemic affecting the citizens of South Africa. Both eNCA and e.tv apologise for the fact that it did not protect the people of South Africa from the potential harm and misinformation contained in the interview.” 

In addition to the apology, there is also a fine of R10,000. While the ruling broadly vindicates our case that eNCA and e.tv breached the codes, it also serves to highlight how important it is to have an effective complaints system that ensures issues are efficiently processed, heard and resolved.

On a broader level it serves to reaffirm the role of the media in offering credible, trustworthy news and information. There are more than enough issues and areas around Covid-19 which are genuinely controversial.

There are fascinating questions about a possible vaccine, how it will be rolled out, who will get it first if there isn’t enough of it, which nations should get priority and why. The problem with giving credibility to fruitcakes is it creates false binaries, ideas that somehow it is legitimate to compare bullsh*t to evidence-based science.

Not only do these then leave people less informed, they are a waste of precious resources that credible news organisations can ill afford.

In the meantime, if you spot something dodgy, report it to Real411. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Graeme J says:

    I think that eNCA’s apology is too little, too late. The damage was already done. They should never have opened the stable door and let Icke in.

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