South Africa

OP-ED

Anti-vax: Lies, damned lies and Trumping the post-truth era

A protester displays a banner outside Parliament House in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Scott Barbour)

No, uncle, just because you read it on WhatsApp doesn’t mean it’s true. That you can now access information about anything in the palm of your hand is a wonderful step forward in humanity’s ongoing attempt to understand, interrogate and create the world around us. But, as Spider-Man tells us, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.

First published on Medium.com

In an article published by the Washington Post, it is alleged that Donald Trump made around 50 false or misleading statements per day during his term of office. In a 20 January update to their tally, the final total was 30,573 false or misleading claims made by Trump over his presidential term. 

This astonishing volume of lies is indicative of the post-truth era in which we live. In this piece, I will explore the proliferation of conspiracy theories in South Africa during the coronavirus pandemic, with a particular focus on theories around vaccines.

John Keane, writing for The Conversation, posits that post-truth politics is a politics in which an appeal is made not to the truth, but what may feel like the truth. This appeal may be as simple as a lie about minute details of an event which may have been forgotten by the majority, or it may be a grand narrative that is at odds with the truth, but has elements used to “attract and distract public attention and to interrupt the background noise of conventional politics and public life”.

A claim that Cyril Ramaphosa became “president” in 2017 in a conversation about government’s efforts to stabilise the economy seems plausible but it would not be entirely true. This statement appears to be true because Ramaphosa did, in fact, become a president in 2017 – but that would be president of the ANC. He became the country’s president in 2018 following Jacob Zuma’s recall and subsequent resignation from the highest office in the land. 

The above example shows how post-truth reasoning may be used to obfuscate, mislead and drive a certain agenda without the receivers of the lie being alerted to the absence of truth.

The anti-vaxxer movement is a decades-old movement that usually speaks out against the vaccination of children. Anti-vaxxers, a term used primarily online for those opposing vaccines, are often people who themselves were vaccinated in childhood and have been spared the suffering caused by diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria and polio. That they should not want their children spared from such suffering is bewildering. However, the focus of this piece is not to simply highlight the ironies present in the anti-vaccine campaign.

A Google image search for “anti-vaxxer” brings up many pictures of people carrying signs speaking about the “dangers” of vaccines. What is common to many of these pictures is that the subjects are, almost as a rule, suburban white American women. 

The American identity of this group is primarily due to the term “anti-vaxxer” being more popular there than anywhere else. How then do we explain the fact that many of these people in the images are women? 

The simple answer is that they are mothers, and mothers are often the ones tasked with child-rearing and bear the responsibility of taking a child for vaccinations and early childhood checkups. It is mothers who are left with the decision to vaccinate their children or not and it is they who would, as a result of this responsibility, be the ones most vocal in opposition to vaccines if they are already dubious of them.

The most well-known claim made by anti-vaxxers is that vaccines cause autism in children. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, multiple studies have shown that there is no link between vaccination and the development of autism spectrum disorder in children. 

The consistent refutation by the scientific community of links between vaccines and autism has done little to curb the growth of the anti-vaxxer movement. Why is this the case? Well, because that is how conspiracy theories and myths function.

The Oxford online dictionary defines “conspiracy theory” as “the belief that a secret but powerful organisation is responsible for an event”. The coronavirus pandemic and the development of vaccines to combat it has presented many adults with a choice to make for themselves regarding vaccines for the first time in their lives. It is now up to them to decide whether they should be vaccinated or not.

Adults, unlike young children, have almost limitless access to information thanks to the internet and smartphones. That you can now access information about anything in the palm of your hand is a wonderful step forward in humanity’s ongoing attempt to understand, interrogate, and create the world around us. But, as Spider-Man tells us, “with great power comes great responsibility”. 

The onus is on the publishers of information to produce information that is true and verifiable. The receivers of this information – typically visitors to news sites and users of various social media platforms – are not without responsibility. It is their duty to be discerning in what they read, share and, in many instances, publish.

The National Youth Commission Act of 1996 defines “youth” as “persons between the ages of 14 and 35”. The older members of this group of South Africans would have grown up as the popularity and accessibility of smartphones grew. They would have been the ones using Mxit to keep in touch after school and on weekends. They also would have been the ones forwarding often hilarious chain messages to each other. 

Mxit, as many of us youths can confirm, was a playground for pretence and lies. It was not uncommon for people to pretend to be celebrities such as Rihanna or Usher and ask others for airtime. It made no difference to many that these “celebrities” wud tipe lyk dis. 

It was here that false and sometimes malicious rumours about fellow scholars or public figures such as Ciara would spread like wildfire and people would accept them uncritically. A lot has changed since Mxit was popular, but a lot has also remained the same.

Many of us have parents who now use WhatsApp as their primary means of communication with us, their friends and other relatives. What WhatsApp is to them is what Mxit was to us, with very similar trappings.

The power of information to spread rapidly via WhatsApp to our parents and tech-savvy grandparents was on full display in the days building up to 5 April 2020. SABC 3 had decided to air “Contagion” on that day, during their primetime Sunday night movie slot. The 2011 movie, as the title suggests, is about a virus spreading through the world and causing a pandemic.

This choice of film was not coincidental to the times we found, and still find, ourselves in. It was a deliberate decision to gain viewership – the aim was not the benign spreading of information. 

WhatsApp messages were flying around between parents and their children about the importance of the film and the manner in which “it explains exactly what we are experiencing”. One could have easily believed the film was a documentary if one relied on nothing but WhatsApp as a primary source of pandemic-related information. 

The sentiment that the film explained our reality is an unfortunate one because the film is fictional and exercises artistic license in portraying the fight against a pandemic. Furthermore, and perhaps most crucially, the virus in the film may have been a bioweapon.

It is not my goal to insult the intelligence of people. I do believe that people are able to critically examine the information they are presented with and formulate their own opinions. However, these opinions are often pre-formulated and are immune to contradictory information. 

Contagion” is a work of fiction but its pull relies on the element of possibility. What “Contagion” does is not dissimilar to what many conspiracy theories do – twist facts and present the absurd as plausible.

That the spread of 5G occurred almost simultaneously with the spread of the virus, at least temporally but also spatially in some cases, was all the proof required by some to show that correlation does, in fact, equal causation in this case. 

This plausibility is the reasonable doubt that enables the Covid-19-era anti-vaxxers to attempt to refute the science. To be completely fair, the scientists do not know everything there is to know about the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its multiple variants, but they are working daily to learn how to manage and eradicate it. This lack of complete knowledge is one of the points of attack for conspiracy theorists.

GPRS. EDGE. 3G. 4G/LTE. 5G. These letters and numbers represent the evolution of broadband cellular network standards. Each has been an advancement on the last in terms of speed and bandwidth. Each has been the subject of controversy and conspiracy theories. A theory common to a few of them is that the towers used to access the network spread cancer-causing radio waves.

The American Cancer Society states that there is no clear evidence that these towers cause cancer in people residing near them, but they do concede that this exposure to the waves has not been proven to be completely safe. 

Come 2020, and the pandemic brought rumours that 5G towers were being used to spread the novel coronavirus. 

That the spread of 5G occurred almost simultaneously with the spread of the virus, at least temporally but also spatially in some cases, was all the proof required by some to show that correlation does, in fact, equal causation in this case. 

This is what led to the torching and destruction of network towers in the UK, the US and in Kwazulu-Natal. To their credit, our government officials have spoken out against such misinformation and vandalism.

Conspiracy theories thrive in the grey area between verifiable truth and plausible information. 

An example of this is the video which went viral in April last year. In the video, Dr Stella Immanuel, a black African woman (this is important for reasons outlined below), speaks about her “success” with hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 cure. Dr Stella, in the video, is flanked by fellow medics from America’s Frontline Doctors – a group which is “critical of the scientific consensus around the Covid-19 pandemic”.

America’s Frontline Doctors were nothing more than a front to support the lack of measures taken by the Trump administration in the fairly early stages of the pandemic in the USA. Is the claim in the preceding sentence a conspiracy theory? Perhaps, but there is an overwhelming collection of verifiable information to support the claim, unlike in the claims made against 5G and the claim in favour of hydroxychloroquine as an effective remedy.

Stella Immanuel’s identity as a black African woman is important because in the age of social media and freedom of access to information, who you are is often just as important as what you say. 

Following centuries of negation and non-recognition of the humanity of Africans, successes in fields such as medicine by Africans are, and always should be, widely celebrated. This need to celebrate each other is what, I believe, led many South Africans to share Immanuel’s video not merely as news but also as a triumph. The apparent success of “one of our own” is what may have made many watch and share the video and not ascertain its source or underlying purpose.

The need to see Africa not just succeed but lead, as well, is what also magnified and garnered support for the “Madagascar cure”. It is also what drives the touting of umhlonyane as a Covid-19 cure.

Source and purpose are crucial elements of information verification in the age of social media but the two are often neglected or paid minimal attention.

The word “research” has found itself doing a lot of work in the spread of misinformation lately. Those who do not believe conspiracy theories are told to do their research. After doing so and returning with the results, they are questioned about why they trust the sources they used, as these sources are “mere tools of the mainstream media”.

In the face of overwhelming evidence – scientific and experiential – a person committed to a particular view, opinion or belief may remain unmoved. It is this steadfastness that allows for conspiracy theories to take hold in an individual and spread.

Misinformation is received and passed on rapidly via sites such as Facebook or Twitter and applications such as Whatsapp because of the manner in which it is presented. 

The information is always veiled in what appears to be legitimacy and/or urgency so as to have the recipient share it without interrogating it. What this does is extend the lifespan of the misinformation as it is allowed to spread exponentially with only a few critical people acting as misinformation dead ends. 

The sources of misinformation and their goals or purpose often remain hidden and anonymous to the spreaders.

Another crucial element of the spread of misinformation via chain messages is the fact that we tend to trust those with whom we share our contact information and converse with regularly. It is the belief that my friend or cousin, sister or uncle, would never mislead me that allows unverified information to spread. Unfortunately, many are misled every day, even if the misleading is done unintentionally.

Vaccines, as is often repeated by epidemiologists, are our best hope in controlling and ending pandemics. 

Many vaccines developed in the 20th century have now become uncontroversial shots administered to children. These vaccines took many years to develop. Technology and the field of medicine have advanced in leaps and bounds since the early years of vaccinology in the 19th century. 

The effort to develop Covid-19 vaccines has been a tremendous feat of global solidarity and has allowed for the rapid development of viable vaccine candidates which are being rolled out internationally, including in South Africa. 

That this global solidarity, unlike the vaccines, has not effectively moved from the development stage to the rollout stage is an issue for a separate article and another day.

A figure who has financially supported and championed the administration of vaccines to children in poor nations and conflict zones (read: Africa) is Bill Gates through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. 

His efforts have been linked by many conspiracy theorists to an agenda of global depopulation, starting with Africa. These rumours have followed Gates for years and the coronavirus pandemic has only added fuel to the fire. That Covid-19 mortality figures in Africa lag behind those of the Americas and Europe is ignored when the depopulation agenda is pushed.

Bill Gates is a Harvard dropout who became a billionaire after co-founding Microsoft. He has worked in tech. He is also a strong advocate for vaccines. The preceding sentences are the basis of the claim that Bill Gates wants to insert microchips into people using Covid-19 vaccines. Like the other claims in this article, there is no factual basis to support it.

Perhaps some people are predisposed to suspicion of information in general. This suspicion is useful when one wants to ensure that they are being told the truth. However, this suspicion may also be detrimental when one is not prepared to act on this suspicion in an attempt to verify the veracity of the information. 

In the face of overwhelming evidence – scientific and experiential – a person committed to a particular view, opinion or belief may remain unmoved. It is this steadfastness that allows for conspiracy theories to take hold in an individual and spread.

Am I arguing that we should uncritically believe all that is presented by the “mainstream media”? Absolutely not. I am making a case for a critical analysis of the information fed to us and a willingness to accept that in some instances, our beliefs may be wrong.

The distrust of governments, billionaires, corporations and the media is not without merit. There have been many instances in the history of governments poisoning their own people, as is the case of the US government taking steps to have toxic chemicals introduced into industrial alcohol during the era of Prohibition.

It is also the case that governments in countries where racial oppression was the law conducted unethical experiments on members of the oppressed race, such as in the Tuskegee syphilis experiments. 

This distrust is what fuels many conspiracy theories and it is up to the very same governments, billionaires, corporations and media to allay the fears people may have through transparency and public information campaigns.

The anti-vaxxer sentiments in South Africa are not unique to us, but they are founded upon a nexus of experiences and information that may be uniquely South African. 

Misinformation, myths and conspiracy theories will never go away. 

What must happen, though, is a countering of them through the provision of verifiable information. An appeal to science is not always enough, as science has often been used as a tool of oppression and cannot be seen as a value-free endeavour or tool. 

There is a multitude of websites available, such as Africa Check, which are dedicated to checking the claims made by public figures and refuting misinformation that spreads via the internet.

Unfortunately for me (maybe? I don’t know), this article may be seen by conspiracy theorists as nothing more than an attempt to further hidden agendas and as a display of the very ignorance I wish to root out. To these claims, I have no response. 

Perhaps this is the allure of conspiracy theories. Those “in the know” or the “free thinkers” see themselves as the critical few while the many are the sheep misled by those charged with governing them.

The anti-vaxxer sentiments in South Africa are not unique to us, but they are founded upon a nexus of experiences and information that may be uniquely South African. 

In working to stop and undo the proliferation of misinformation and unfounded conspiracy theories, it is important that we look at the conditions which have allowed them to spread in the first place. 

It is my hope that this article spurs us on to be more critical recipients and spreaders of all information. It is my contribution in furtherance of a public which is not easily misled, and one which allows for the rigorous interrogation of all information that we encounter in various facets of life, whether it be in lectures or in family WhatsApp groups.

I look forward to the day we close the chapter on the post-truth era in which we live. DM

Thulani Dlamini is completing his final year of an LLB degree at UCT. This article was first published here.

Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address Covid-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]

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"Information pertaining to Covid-19, vaccines, how to control the spread of the virus and potential treatments is ever-changing. Under the South African Disaster Management Act Regulation 11(5)(c) it is prohibited to publish information through any medium with the intention to deceive people on government measures to address COVID-19. We are therefore disabling the comment section on this article in order to protect both the commenting member and ourselves from potential liability. Should you have additional information that you think we should know, please email [email protected]"