OP-ED

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

By William Bird & Thandi Smith 28 February 2021

(Photo: EPA-EFE / TATYANA ZENKOVICH)

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc in South Africa, those who seek to cause confusion, chaos and public harm have powerful tools of misinformation and disinformation to do just that. This week we look at the impact of Real411 and consider some other positive angles.

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 that have largely focused on Covid-19. To date, just under 1,300 complaints have been submitted to the platform, with relevant action being taken where necessary. 

One of the most common questions we are asked is: what can be done about disinformation? The bad news is that fighting disinformation isn’t a battle we are going to win easily or any time soon, if ever. Like Covid-19, disinformation is catchy and spreads quickly, and causes great harm and loss of life. Unlike Covid-19, however, there isn’t a vaccine for disinformation, but, like Covid-19, it has the ability to mutate and get around some basic defences. If we had an ideal scenario and unlimited resources we might be able to significantly limit disinformation, but we would still be unlikely to stop it.

There are simply too many avenues and too many enticements to ensure its spread. So, when we look at how we are combating disinformation we have to consider that we are in for a sustained battle, and that our victories need to be measured accordingly. Over our series of articles, we have looked at who disseminates disinformation and why. We have looked at strategies for countering, and for dealing with it. What we are considering this week is, knowing we are dealing with an ongoing digital harm, is Real411 having the desired impact?

It’s a difficult one to answer, because, unlike Covid-19 where we can get a rough idea of how it is spreading, how fast and how much there is, we cannot do the same for disinformation. 

Unfortunately, much disinformation takes place in darkness. We simply don’t know how much disinformation there is. In August last year Facebook revealed that it had removed seven million posts about Covid-19 that breached its guidelines.  A further 98 million were marked as false by fact checkers but not removed.  Sounds like a lot over three months, but when we consider that there are around 350 million photos uploaded to Facebook each day (around 31.5 billion over 90 days), it is a tiny fraction.

But at least we are starting to get some transparency from the big platforms about these issues. We know, however, that some of the biggest spreaders of disinformation are occurring on platforms where the owners cannot see what is being spread, platforms like WhatsApp. 

Because WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted there isn’t any way of telling just how much disinformation is spread on it. At Real411, 24% of all complaints received to date are based on WhatsApp content, so we have some idea that compared to Facebook and Twitter there clearly is a real problem with disinformation on WhatsApp, but we don’t know how much there is overall.

When assessing impact, it is incredibly difficult to know the scale of the challenge, and thus to measure the degree to which efforts to mitigate it are successful. In light of these difficulties however, some areas are emerging as indicators of impact. Fact checking is one of the most common, where, adhering to international standards, facts can be checked and accurate information disseminated. Africa Check does an excellent job in this regard. 

For Real411 some elements of impact are:

  • Is the platform being used?
  • Is it doing what it should, and helping to promote transparency?
  • Is the platform recognised by key stakeholders?
  • Collectively, then, is disinformation in South Africa being mitigated?

Is the platform being used?

If we take complaints as a basic indicator, we hit 1,000 complaints resolved in just over eight months of operation. For comparative purposes, the Press Council resolved around 900 complaints in 2020. The Broadcast Complaints Commission of South Africa resolved 55 in 2017. (Both these institutions resolve a great deal of complaints without any formal hearing or tribunal.) This suggests that there is a need for a platform like Real411 that offers a local transparent means of addressing complaints, and that it is in fact being used.

The platform is, for the most part, sustained by volunteers. Each complaint that is received is reviewed by a minimum of four highly skilled people: a legal expert, technology expert and a media expert, then a highly skilled legal member of our secretariat. The people who review and write do so for no financial reward, despite all of them being exceptionally busy professionals. That such highly skilled professionals volunteer their time and have done so for nearly 12 months is indicative not just of their capability of giving back but also that they believe Real411 is having an impact.  They are all local heroes.

Is Real411 doing what it should and helping to promote transparency?  

Since June 2020, more than 440 infographics have been generated for dissemination, and take-down requests have been sent to the various platforms for action.  In most cases the platforms have, to their credit, acted swiftly and removed content. In some cases, the content being complained about had already been removed by the platforms themselves. That complaints are heard and that the overwhelming majority (more than 90%) of them are resolved within 24 to 48 hours is significant. In cases of urgent complaints, we aim for a turnaround time of three to five hours. On these parameters then, Real411 is having an impact on the cases being reported.

Is the platform recognised by key stakeholders?

A key aspect of the impact is that key stakeholders recognise the platform and its aims. In this regard, the platform has been recommended by the South African government for reports of disinformation about Covid-19. In 2019, the platform was used by the Independent Electoral Commission in its efforts to help combat disinformation about the elections, and the fact that the platforms act on the take-down requests indicates recognition of the work being done by the Real411 platform.

In addition, Real411 is recognised by the Press Council, the Interactive Advertising Bureau and the South African National Editors’ Forum and it has also received support from Unesco. That we have former Deputy Chief Justice Zak Yacoob acting as the appeals judge also speaks to recognition by a great legal mind. 

Collectively then, is disinformation in South Africa being mitigated?

With an average of 118 complaints a month, with platforms taking action against content highlighted by the Real411 system, and with recognition by other key stakeholders, not only is the system clearly working, it is also clearly meeting a need. 

The more people use it, and the more it is recognised as a normal practice to address complaints, the more people will be aware not only that they can take action against digital harms but that the harms can be mitigated. 

While an entity can achieve a lot, success in the battle against disinformation can be achieved if people are less likely to share it the next time they see it, and help limit its spread. While we do not know if we are being successful in mitigating 10%, 2% or even 0.5% of disinformation, we do know that Real411 is having an impact in mitigating the disinformation that is being reported.

As we seek to encourage more complaints, and spread the word that action can be taken, and as we seek to find better ways of measuring disinformation, we hope that you, dear reader, will help in the fight by encouraging your friends and loved ones to report disinformation and discourage them from sharing dodgy content.

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

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]"

Viewfinder: Police Brutality

How SAPS protects the killers within its ranks

By Daneel Knoetze for Viewfinder