OP-ED

Disinformation in a time of Covid19: Weekly Trends in South Africa

By William Bird and Thandi Smith 7 March 2021

We Are More members protest at Cape Town’s Fish Hoek Beach on 6 February 2021. (Photo: Gallo Images / Die Burger / Jaco Marais)

As the Covid-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc in our country, those who seek to cause confusion, chaos and public harm have powerful tools of mis- and disinformation to do just that. This week, as we deal with the first anniversary of the first case in South Africa, we are starting a three-piece look at key disinformation trends over the past year.

William Bird and Thandi Smith

Week3: Weekly trends — a year on, same, same but different.

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 more than 1,300 complaints have been submitted to the platform since March 2020, with relevant action being taken where necessary.

As we begin reflecting on disinformation trends over the past year, one of the earliest pieces of disinformation assessed by the Real411 team (ID 31) purported to show police removing people from a beach in Cape Town. It wasn’t Cape Town, nor was it anywhere in South Africa, nor did it have anything to do with Covid-19 lockdown.

It was however a great example of one of the key trends we have seen over the past year. Let’s call them the “flockers”, flockers because they like to flock together and “vloek” about the lockdown, “FXXK the lockdown!”, with threats to oppose. The flockers were/are people who not only opposed the lockdown, but they spread mis- and disinformation about its impact, from fear-mongering of a new lockdown level being imposed, through to conspiracy theories that it was part of a broader plan to control the people so the government could secretly erect 5G towers. (Yes really).

In some cases, there were threats that a child who tested positive for Covid-19 would be taken away from its parents. There was also a series of pieces of disinformation relating to government notices, (some based on mix-ups within the government’s haste on regulations, like those about BBBEE requirements) and also about the government saying landlords shouldn’t collect rent from their tenants for three months.

The dramatic impact of the lockdown on everyone’s lives combined with its complexity of stages and levels meant it was an easy target for the flockers. We didn’t see as many complaints about made-up state violence, as the army and SAPS managed to assault people of their own accord, culminating in the tragic death of Collins Khosa, who was beaten to death by soldiers.

Another early trend was the idea that Covid-19 either wasn’t real, was just like the flu, or that there was already a cure for it. This group are the “health nuts”. The cure disinformation suggested either unspecified medicines or tea. In some cases, there were suggestions that foods high in certain vitamins would be the cure or that people needed to drink especially hot drinks to kill the virus or rinse with saline water. Interestingly, often the cures emanated from places that weren’t in Europe or North America, such as Israel or Senegal.

Wherever there is a crisis there are those who don’t only seek to heighten fear, they also want to use it to make money. We aren’t talking about your regular government tenderpreneurs and doorknob politically connected thieves, common to our own, the UK and US governments — no, in this case we are talking about the ones who hide behind badly crafted phishing and fraud scams. 

The complaints listed here are common for how unimaginative they are.  They tend to take the same form — an offer of a “government” grant if you just send in your name, email and phone number — some ask for bank details too. They tend to use a government coat of arms somewhere and trade on people’s desperation and also possibly greed.    

 


 

 

We shouldn’t be surprised that people can be so despicable. Then again, for each one of them, we have seen so many more acts of kindness and support in response to Covid-19.  It’s sometimes easier to see only the mean and contemptible. 

Conspiracies galore. This type rounds off the brief review this week. These range from evil forces — such as Bill Gates, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and global forces to global paedophile rings responsible for the lockdown.  

The most common are not so amusing, as they tend to revolve around various theories disproving that Covid-19 exists, to assertions about masks not having any effect. More recently the conspiracy theories have been driven by anti-vaxxers. Common anti-vaxxer lies include that the vaccines are made from foetuses, that they have microchips inside them, and that they are a plan by Bill Gates who wants to kill three billion people. It is curious that the anti-vaxxers haven’t made sufficient song and dance about legitimate fears that people may actually have, about how quickly they were developed or whether they have been rigorously tested, for example.  

One of our favourites is that Covid-19 is caused by 5G. This one keeps coming back and has in fact been repeated by some of our more vacuum-sealed public figures. Don’t waste any time on them.  Rather watch this brilliantly funny take on 5G and Covid by Alan Committie.

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

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