OP-ED

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

By William Bird & Thandi Smith 23 November 2020

(Photo: EPA-EFE/ANDREA CANALI)

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 enables them to do just that. This week we look at practical tips on dealing with online doorknobs.

Week24: Weekly trends – when a troll calls

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 Covid-19. To date, 1005 complaints have been submitted to the platform since March 2020, 96% of which have been assessed by experts, and action taken. 

The past week was typified by renewed denial about Covid-19, its seriousness added with a sprinkling of anti-vaccine fearmongering. There were also a string of vexatious complaints seeking to bog down the Real411 system and or undermine its credibility and or efficacy. An example of such a complaint is complaint #1065, seen below. This complaint specifically relates to a WhatsApp, said to be distributed by the Mosselbay Municipality, detailing how to decline a vaccine.  

The next example we wanted to bring attention to relates to a number of complaints submitted attempting to bring the credibility of the Real411 platform into disrepute. Complaint ID1055 was submitted, claiming that a tweet from Real411 illustrating some of the most common topics of complaints submitted, was disinformation and hate speech. 

It’s a sad reality of social media that, while it can have great value, like being able to keep you up to date on the latest news, or areas of interest, it is awash with anger, hatred, misogyny, racism, xenophobia and Afrophobia. Of course, these are frequently mixed in with mis- and disinformation, from the casual doorknobs, anti-vaccers, conspiracy theorists, paid disinformers and every other shade of the vomitous rainbow that makes up these groupings of those who willingly or unwittingly strive to undermine democracy and demean our humanity. Now it is tempting to use one of the tricks of these groupings, dehumanise them, and suggest they are the evil lizard people! Sadly, that isn’t altogether helpful, because it isn’t true and because more often than not these “lizard monsters” are often closer than we might like to acknowledge. Like those who violate through gender-based violence, so too the disinformers, haters and racists can be found in our personal circles. They may be work colleagues, relatives, friends or just acquaintances. 

Aside from reporting them to Real411, when you believe there is disinformation, what are some strategies to help deal with digital evils and when you are attacked? Currently, there don’t appear to be any 100% foolproof methods for successfully dealing with all the different types of attacks, but there are a number of useful approaches you might want to try.

Before we look at the different tools and strategies, one of the most important things to do is to screengrab attacks. If someone attacks, gather the evidence. Screengrabs on your device are essential if things escalate and also to remind others of what was actually said by another person.  They make the posts easier to find and they are evidence that even if the attacker tries to delete them you will still have a record. If possible, try to keep a copy of the URL – or unique address that has the content. Even if they delete it, it can be useful. Don’t alter the screen grabs, just save them in a folder on your device.

If you are a woman you will almost certainly be attacked for your gender on social media.  Surprise! Patriarchy is alive and thriving on social media and the perceived distance of a screen, together with varying degrees of anonymity mean these attacks and insults fly thick and fast. It is a common feature of social media that people feel they can say things to people that in real life they would never dare express to a person’s face.  

Let’s look at some of the strategies used: 

The block

The simplest and easiest tool available: If anyone attacks, you can just block them. Like standing behind a row of Beast Mtawarira’s, this is pretty effective. It doesn’t stop the attackers from attacking you – the block just stops them from vomiting their bile onto you. Of course, if they are persistent, they might get another account and try again. This method is most effective for when you just want them off your timeline and can’t be bothered. It doesn’t stop them from spreading their bile, but you don’t see it pop up.

Rational rule-based engagement.  If you have the stomach for this and you have important stuff to say, then this is an option.  Have a look at how Adam Habib (@AdHabb) deals with the attacks. Habib regularly starts off sharing his thoughts with a chain of numbered posts. Here is an example from his take on Brackenfell High School. He starts with this tweet: 

He sets out his take over a number of numbered posts and he ends his list with his explicit criteria for engagement.  

“8. Feel free to respond. Differ, robustly if you must, but respect the rules. If you racist, use foul language, or threaten, you will be thrown out. Our society requires deliberation, but not toxic public discourse. So please respect the rules on this account. Good night!”  

 

Habib’s approach, because he tackles hot political issues, is to ask for engagement but he is clear it should be robust, but if it violates the boundaries of how he will engage then he will block and not engage. In being explicit about the basis on which he engages, he affords anyone who wishes to engage him a chance, as long they don’t use racist, foul language or threats. The method is useful if you seek to engage debate that focuses on the issues and not just attacking the person for his or her views. This is a clever approach to basically take standard rules of debate and engagement used in other contexts like universities and apply them to social media. Other public intellectuals follow similar trends but aren’t usually as explicit about the “rules of engagement”. The method has the advantage of hopefully elevating debate and discussion, and then simply blocking those who don’t play by the rules. Sound familiar?  Yep, it is pretty much how sports are played, only without the referees.

Questioning approach. Similar to the rational rules-based approach, this is often used as a method to interrogate someone’s baseless post and in so doing expose the paucity of their attack. This approach is often used by a range of different experts on social media, follow Nechama Brodie (@broediagal) to see how she uses it as a default. The approach has also recently been formalised as a strategy to tackle xenophobia. Driven by the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change, they have even set up a website to help encourage others to join and adopt a similar approach.  The approach is summarised by Adam Armstrong (@armstrongideas) in this tweet

“#PutSouthAfricansFirst are engaged in active disinformation in South Africa. 

Find out for yourself: 

  1. Question their statistics. 
  2. Ask where they get data from.
  3. Ask why they are all using fake accounts. 
  4. Ask why they reject any info that disagrees with them.”

It is an important response and sees those involved using questions to counter attacks and hate. It has the potential to be incredibly powerful and possibly shift the approach used by the networks responsible. The risk with the approach though is that often when people’s lack of evidence is exposed, they revert to insult. It is a lot easier to insult than it is to put forward evidence, especially if you are being paid to spread hate. If this is an approach you would like to try, join the Care network.  Alternatively, if you wish to apply the principles in other areas make sure you have back-up systems in place networks of friends, family and professional help as well. Also remember for some of these people they may be being paid, or they are themselves damaged, and lashing out and hurting makes them feel better and generates traffic, which helps them spew their ideas. Social media currently doesn’t reward kindness and caring. But if you want to do more than repost and like this method potentially offers a meaningful option for digital activism. (Disclaimer: MMA and the CABC are partners on work against disinformation.)

Take a hike: This approach isn’t so much “meet fire with fire” as much as it is “meet sewage with super bleach!”  This approach to online attacks is to hit the attackers just as hard. Most often the replies are powerful because they stand up to the bullies, and some of the best ones have biting humour. This approach can be powerful, but you need to be super sharp and have a strong back up. One of the best proponents of this is Jean le Roux. Working for DFR Lab he and his colleague, Tessa Knight, have been able to expose a string of scumbags, from those perpetuating hate, like #PutSouthAfrica First, to others making money off websites that promote racism. Le Roux doesn’t hold back when responding and does so in a manner that mixes dismissive retort with evidence of idiocy of those attacking him.  

In response to vile threats, he put out this: 

This approach, though, is high-risk, as more often than not the people behind the accounts like to escalate and use the tactics we have written about before, including getting some of their minions to issue death threats. (Disclaimer: MMA and the DFR Lab are partners on work against disinformation.)

Another one who takes on the sewage, usually with biting humour, is Robyn Porteous (@RobynPorteous)

and here: Instead of posting the tweet and leaving it, she engages further:

then ends it with this zinger:

Another excellent proponent of this approach is Chris Roper. Apart from his excellent pieces published in the media, his use of humour to counter the “Bros” is powerful.

Others like Nomboniso Gasa (@Nombonisogasa) adopt a similar no- nonsense approach. 

Whichever approach you choose, please be sure to follow these five steps: 1. Screen grab the content that spews hate, if the person is anonymous, treat with caution. Anonymity is frequently used to enable haters to express vile things. 2. Pause, have a cup of tea or coffee before responding. Remember your humanity and sanity counts too. 3. Try as hard as you can not to stoop to their level and respond in a manner that sounds hurt – it will only encourage them. 4. If in doubt and it’s personal, block and report. 5. If you come across potential disinformation, hate speech, incitement to violence or the harassment of journalists online, please report to www.real411.org.za. Also, if you have an iPhone you can download the app from the iTunes store. (Android version coming soon.) DM

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