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Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: Weekly trends in...

South Africa

OP-ED

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

(Photo: Unsplash / Thiebaud Faix)

A crisis such as the coronavirus pandemic is a perfect opportunity for those who wish to cause confusion, chaos and public harm via mis- and disinformation. We look at complaints received by Real411, with a focus on the more bizarre disinformation circulating on social media about Covid-19 vaccinations.

Week 1: A new year, a new start, more of the same… and a penis.

 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 that have largely focused on Covid-19. To date, a little more than 1,200 complaints have been submitted to the platform, with relevant action being taken where necessary. The image below gives some insight into some of the key themes and topics of the complaints we have seen.

Although the Real411 platform encourages complaints to be submitted on content that could potentially be hate speech, incitement to violence, harassment of journalists online or disinformation, most of the complaints related to Covid-19 disinformation. Two recent complaints are fine examples of the disinformation we have seen repeatedly over the past year.

Complaint #1246 perpetuates the conspiracy that Bill Gates is seeking to kill people through the vaccine. #1247 is another typical piece of content circulating on Facebook about mask wearing, distributed with the intention to cause public harm (a classic definition of disinformation). 


 Complaint #1247

Along with disinformation and conspiracies, we find phishing scams. This particular complaint related to content circulating on WhatsApp claiming the South African government was providing a R3,000 relief fund. Phishing scams target people who are already struggling financially. Victims provide personal financial information in exchange for promised financial gain, only to discover it is all untrue and they have been defrauded. This is a despicable, all-too-common scam that takes advantage of people’s vulnerability.

Complaint #1245

 Combine existing conspiracy theories about vaccinations with already circulating disinformation on Covid-19 and we have the potential for an anti-vaccination “superstorm”. The complaint below, #1242, is a piece of anti-vaxxer disinformation warning against the Covid-19 vaccine. This is dangerous as there is a real threat to public health and the lives of millions of people.

 Complaint #1242

We assume that the people who create disinformation are anti-democratic doorknobs. For disinformation to be successful, it doesn’t need to persuade us of an alternate reality – all it needs to do is create doubt. Disinformers are skilful at using fear, anger and anxiety to create that doubt. The moment we no longer know what to believe we are in the perilous position of not knowing how to act or make an informed decision.

One of the more peculiar complaints we have had this year was this one:

 The content complained of suggests that the Covid-19 vaccine should be administered by injecting it directly into the penis. The image submitted has a CNN logo on it, seemingly to give the veneer of credibility. It is possible that most people will look at this post and think it is plainly silly.  However, many who see the image will grimace at the thought. It is the gut reaction of fear and anxiety that matters.

There might not be an obvious anti-vaccine message, but just the possibility it might be true begins to associate vaccines with pain.

The disinformers’ job has been made much easier by people in power. Whether they are public figures in government, the justice system or the media, many have eroded public trust. One of the legacies of former US president Donald Trump is that he didn’t just manage to undermine faith in what he said, but in political leaders generally.

He is joined in his untruths by counterparts elsewhere, such as the UK’s Boris Johnson, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, India’s Narendra Modi, Zimbabwe’s Emmerson Mnangagwa and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni. When people in leadership positions show scant regard for science and reality the public does not know who to believe.

In South Africa, there have been ominous warning signs, as highlighted here. But perhaps one of the few advantages of a fractured ANC is that there are too many people within the party and the opposition who would jump at the chance to take President Cyril Ramaphosa down if he were to lose his grasp on reality like some other world leaders.

While our president might have his wits about him, a number of senior public figures have spoken about possible cures for Covid-19, repeating myths or spreading disinformation. While some have been condemned, there have been no consequences for their Trump-like delusions, which is alarming. It is all well and good to have detailed press conferences at which the science is carefully explained, but unless the government also condemns and takes action against those who demonstrate a tenuous grasp of science and reality they undermine their own efforts.

On the flip side, there have been notable and important efforts to ensure accurate, credible and understandable information is put into the public domain. A quick perusal of media beyond Daily Maverick reveals a significant amount of quality reporting that seeks to explain and contextualise, with expert input and evidence. These examples from Daily Maverick, here, here and here, are all recent and should be read and viewed by everyone who wants to get a handle on where things are.

The battle against disinformation is about identifying it and acting on it, but it is also about ensuring that we have an environment where the media, government and civil society offer evidence-based debates with accurate information provided in a way the public can understand.

Remember, if you come across content on social media that could potentially be disinformation, report it to Real411. To make it even more simple, download the Real411 mobile app.

Download the Real411 app on Google Play Store or Apple App Store. DM

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

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 we should know about, please email [email protected]

Gallery

"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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