South Africa

OP-ED

Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: Weekly Trends in South Africa – tackling accusations of bias

Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: Weekly Trends in South Africa – tackling accusations of bias
(Photo: Unsplash / Maxim Ilyahov)

A crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic creates a perfect opportunity for those who wish to cause confusion, chaos, and public harm; and mis- and disinformation enables them to do just that. This week we look at bias and Real411.

Week23: Weekly trends – a matter of self-reflection

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, 971 complaints have been submitted to the platform, 96% of which have been assessed by experts and action taken. 

This past week we have had complaints dealing with Covid-19 disinformation, as well as a range of complaints about the Real411 system and in particular one of the reviewers. So, in the interest of transparency, we unpack behind-the-scenes activities and address the question of bias.

Examples of these complaints are complaint #1022 and complaint #1000, as seen below. 

Complaint #1000

Complaint #1022

 Are we biased? Yes, we are. We do not seek to hide it, we own it and are clear about it on the Real411 site. We don’t believe in a fabled objectivity, but we do believe in human rights, in fairness, balance, accuracy and the SA Constitution. We are clear about the assumptions and principles that drive and underpin our work and the way it operates.

Our approach isn’t unique, it is pretty much the same framework that judges, quality journalism institutions, some Chapter 9 bodies and others apply. Of course, we all come to our work with particular experiences, histories, assumptions and biases. Some may believe that white South African men are stupid, misogynist racist wankers. We may think this because of our experiences of them, but of course it isn’t true of all white South African men – that’s the issue with biases and stereotypes, and the trick is not to let those biases influence professional decisions. One of the best ways of doing this is to be clear and conscious about the biases we have and ask how they might be affecting the decisions we make. Then ensure that there are clear processes to help mitigate those biases and that the processes are themselves determined by fair principles. 

While not perfect, we have spent considerable time and effort on the design of the Real411 system and process to ensure that regardless of the complaint, its platform, and/or who it is targeting, the same principles apply. 

Most of those who contribute to the Real411 system do so on a voluntary basis. There is no financial incentive for them to take a particular position. Some who work on Real411 are paid for their services: the developers who work on the back-end systems, our legal partners, who built the legal framework and help revise the criteria from time to time, and two staff members from Media Monitoring Africa – who are responsible for Real411 as a project.

When a complaint is submitted to Real411, it is assessed by three reviewers. The three reviewers make up a Digital Complaints Committee (DCC). In each DCC there are three professionals: a legal expert, a technology/social media expert and a media/journalism expert. The groupings ensure that three different perspectives review the same content. Each of the reviewers acts individually and cannot view each other’s responses. We have about 25 volunteer reviewers across the three areas. Complaints are selected or claimed for analysis by reviewers on a first come, first served basis. Only once all three reviewers have completed their analysis will the complaint move forward for the attention of one of the five members of the Secretariat, each one of whom is a qualified lawyer.

The Secretariat member reviews the three reviewers’ assessments and decides a final outcome. 

By the time a complaint has an outcome determined, or it is finalised, it has been viewed by a minimum of four people. If there are legal grey areas, members of the Secretariat may choose to engage with each other – again to help ensure a more accurate and considered outcome.

Despite these steps, the system would not be sufficiently independent if there wasn’t a solid legal framework underpinning it all. For each digital evil assessed, ie, mis/disinformation, incitement to violence, hate speech and/or harassment of journalists online, there are set criteria. The criteria are listed on the complaint form. This week they will also be more widely accessible in other parts of the site. The criteria draw on our current laws and rights and have been subjected to scrutiny and interrogation by a host of legal experts.

So, it would be very difficult to deliberately skew the result, in favour or against a complaint or series of complaints. To do so would require conspiracy among diverse professionals, overt subversion of the legal principles that are applied in every complaint, and that the Secretariat members act in breach of their legal obligations. 

We have an appeal judge who would then have to be fooled into supporting the conspiracy, the former Deputy Chief Justice Zak Yacoob – a justice held in the highest regard by his colleagues and the public alike. 

In addition to these steps, each and every change in the process is tracked and recorded, and the identity of the person making those changes is recorded too. 

One of the common slurs is that the Real411 is a woke ultra-left or left-leaning, communist/socialist evil structure funded by George Soros. The one area where such people do actually display some creativity is gathering so many stereotypical areas into an online attack. 

We list the donors and partners at the bottom of the website, with links to their sites. We do indeed receive funding from the Open Society Foundation (OSF). The money may ultimately come from George Soros, but not before it has been allocated to the OSF staffed by local experts and professionals with an independent board of people with their own reputations and dignity to protect. The board of the OSF allocates the funds. While staff may put forward suggestions, the board makes the final decision. 

Our donors give us resources and we are required to report to them what we did with the money. Our finances are audited. Our receiving of funds is based on what we did: did we use the resources effectively and were they in line with our stated aims? At no stage in any of our processes with any donor have they tried to influence our system.

Those who suggest we are pursuing an agenda are correct: the agenda is to deepen democracy, promote human rights, media freedom, freedom of expression and accountable transparent processes that are in line with the Constitution. We seek to combat mis- and disinformation, hate speech, incitement to violence and harassment of journalists online because each of those digital evils undermines democracy and limits fundamental freedoms in ways that perpetuate inequality, racism, sexism and creates an uninformed, disempowered public. We are supported in this agenda by a range of donors, technology and other civil society partners and institutions. We undertake to pursue this agenda in an open, transparent and accountable manner, and if people are not happy with the outcomes of complaints, they are most welcome to submit an appeal. 

We are supported by a range of professional reviewers and are always looking for more volunteers. If you are interested, please get in touch by emailing [email protected] To be considered as a reviewer you will need to commit to volunteering a few hours a week to reviewing, commit to doing so in a professional, fair and accurate manner, have demonstrable expertise in one or more of the areas and you cannot be an office-bearer of any political party.

Disinformation is not a new phenomenon, but social media, digital platforms and new methods of communication have enabled disinformers to push their agenda far deeper and reach a far wider audience than ever before. It will take a dedicated, multi-stakeholder approach to even begin to make a dent in combating disinformation. We welcome critique, we welcome questions, we welcome debate. 

Remember, if you come across potential disinformation, hate speech, incitement to violence or the harassment of journalists online, please report it to www.real411.org.za DM

William Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa. Thandi Smith is head of programmes at Media Monitoring Africa.

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