South Africa


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 / Brian McGowan)

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 tips and tricks for maintaining your sense of humour and how to help spread some compassion. We also look into what’s in store for us in 2021.

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, 1,074 complaints have been submitted to the platform since March 2020, 97% of which have been assessed by experts, and action taken.

Normally at this time of year people are rushing to wrap up, get ready for a break and a chance to refresh and reboot. In 2020, the trauma and stress are even greater. There are simply too many bad things that have happened and are ongoing. We have run the full gamut of those whose intent is to disinform. Online we are met with insecurity, fallacy, conspiracy, hatred, racism, sexism, homophobia, Afrophobia, harassment, insult, incitement, bullying, threats and, of course, disinformation. It’s enough to turn even the jolliest, most optimistic, compassionate, loving person into something like a cross between Voldemort and Donald Trump.

We covered the tips and strategies to deal with those who attack. We didn’t talk about the critical importance of looking after yourself. So, as we try and find some respite, prepare for the next wave of Covid-19 and concomitant trauma, remember, CHARTED.

C – Compassion – So many, and maybe even you as you read this, have gone through hell this year. In one of our first commentaries on disinformation, we referred to a piece that had appeared in Daily Maverick on seven lessons from the Western Cape. The 7th lesson was the importance of compassion and kindness. So, over the next few weeks, try to respond with kindness and compassion. It may not stop the hate online, but it may really help someone else who is struggling.

H – Humour – One of the most well-known techniques to deal with anxiety and stress is humour. Finding the funny is one of the things we do really well in South Africa – probably because we are a nation that is generally traumatised – but it really works. Why do bicycles tend to fall over so often? Because they are two-tyred. Maybe you just groaned, but try a few more corny jokes and you will see how much better you feel.

A – Appraise, re-appraise – This can be a useful technique to try. It’s based on the idea that often it isn’t the objective events or things that occur, but how you respond to them that matters and how that affects your emotions. Take this GIF from a BBC TV soap opera. It is a father crying because his child has died and he is watching them bury his body. You might feel awful.

What if we tell you that it isn’t a funeral, but the father is crying tears of joy at his child’s wedding? Same content, but how we perceive it and respond, are radically different. A simple method is when someone is mean or angry, think: this isn’t about me; it’s about them – they must be having a really bad day. Obviously, this doesn’t justify abuse, but when it is online, if someone makes nasty comments, remind yourself that it isn’t about you but about them. Why is this useful? Because if you change the way you think about something, you will also likely change the way you feel about it. If you do that instead of getting hurt or angry you might be calmer and even more compassionate, in your response.

R – Report – We hope that the emphasis on the instances of Real411 and cases has shown the value and importance of reporting. If you see something dodgy or you are being attacked online or bullied, report it.  Reporting to Real411 is about taking action. Instead of just blocking, it introduces a level of accountability and empowers you through a positive action.

T – Talk – This might seem obvious to some, but one of the most disempowering responses is to stay silent, to allow yourself to be attacked online, harassed and not talk about it. Talk to a friend, family member, loved one or colleague. If you don’t feel comfortable with any of those options speak to LifeLine or the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. Talking to another person helps bring perspective. We all know a problem shared is a problem halved.

E – Enjoyment – For all the bad, horrible stuff on social media – there is also so much to enjoy. We have so many amazing comedians, not only will they make you laugh, they might help bring perspective and enjoyment. Follow Alan Committie, Chester Missing, Coconut Kelz, Loyiso Gola, David Kau, Nik Rabinowitz, Khanyisa Bunu, Celeste Ntuli, Shimmy Isaacs, Tumi Morake and a whole lot more.

D – Distract – Distraction really works. It isn’t about suppressing the feeling you have when you get hate online, it is about distracting so we can shift some of the nasty things. We know it works because in the time it has taken you to read this, you haven’t been worrying about the things you probably should be doing. It is a useful tool if you find yourself feeling overwhelmed or too involved in what’s happening online. Get up, take a walk even if it is just around the room, look out the window, count how many things you can see that start with the letter R – why R? Because Real411 starts with an R. If you have a pet, find it and give it cuddles. Unless you have a pet rattlesnake in which case probably best to cuddle a teddy bear instead. But patting or playing with your pet will do wonders for your emotional state.

We will be taking a break over the festive period, not just because we are tired, but because next year is going to be big, and this is why we think it will be:

  1. Covid-19 and disinformation: We know that South Africa is experiencing the “second wave” of Covid-19 infections. We also know that from the disinformation trends we have seen over 2020, disinformers will take the opportunity of increased government communications and response to spread their well-orchestrated and/or mean-spirited disinformation, encouraging non-compliance to health protocols, pushing agendas of distrust and doubt in credible institutions and promoting narratives that do more harm than good. Real411 will be ready.
  2. Vaccinations, anti-vaxxers, and conspiracy theories: Conspiracy theories pushing anti-vaccination agendas existed pre-Covid-19. What the pandemic has done has been to give those “anti-vaxxers” an opportunity to push this agenda even further. Social media and digital platforms allow their message to reach even wider audiences, causing even further public harm. Given the stage of vaccination development the world is witnessing in relation to Covid-19, we anticipate a rise in disinformation related to Covid-19 vaccinations. Again, Real411 will be ready.
  3. South African local elections: As we know, much of the disinformation reported to Real411 over the past few months has been Covid-related, we also know that this isn’t the only trend of disinformation spreading across our various online platforms. Disinformation targeting politics, politicians and nefarious strategies in an attempt to affect the outcome of elections is something we have experienced before. There are very few reasons to think that our local elections in 2021 will be any different. Real411 will be ready.
  4. Real411 – better, faster, easier: Last but not least, we have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to improve the user experience of the Real411 platform. Recently, we announced the release of the Real411 app on iOS, and we are finalising the release of the app on Android platforms. Soon, you will be able to create your own profile on Real411, see your personal trends in relation to the complaints you submit, as well as a far easier complaints submission process. You can already sign up for our Real411 newsletter here.

We hope you are as excited as we are to see what 2021 has in store for Real411 and continue playing your part in creating a safer, friendlier, more compassionate online space for everyone.

For the moment, thank you for reading and supporting and submitting complaints. If you come across potential disinformation, hate speech, incitement to violence or the harassment of journalists online, please report to Also, if you have an iPhone, you can download the app from the iTunes store. (Android version coming soon, yes, really!) Look after yourself and loved ones, wear masks, sanitise and keep your distance in public. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.

Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Download the Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox.

+ Your election day questions answered
+ What's different this election
+ Test yourself! Take the quiz