OP-ED

Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: A year on, here’s the 411 on what we have learnt about disinformation

By William Bird and Thandi Smith 22 March 2021

(Photo: Unsplash / Ana Flavia)

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.

William Bird and Thandi Smith

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.  

This week Real411 turns one year old. We think that’s pretty cool and we will celebrate with socially distanced cake. Real411 was a pilot that sought to ensure digital content could be assessed on the same basis as all other media content, and that it was assessed on the same principles regardless of platform. 

Part of what makes Real411 special is that it offers the public a means of acting against digital harms like mis- and disinformation and doing so in a manner that doesn’t undermine freedom of expression, but ultimately seeks to deepen and protect it. Real411 is also special because unlike the platforms’ own systems, which remain largely opaque and unaccountable to varying degrees, Real411 is based on our own laws and the process is open and transparent. 

In addition, anyone can go and see what has been complained about and learn why decisions were taken. If they disagree, they can lodge an appeal that will be heard by Justice Zak Yacoob. This week, in the final piece of our series, we look at the trends of disinformation we have seen over the past year from Real411.

When looking at how much disinformation is out there, we know that already the system is limited to only those complaints that are reported.  This one is important if we are to get a better sense of how much disinformation is circulating, to encourage people to keep reporting to Real411. Of the 1,300-odd complaints that have been received, 929 have been about disinformation. Over the year, of the complaints about disinformation, 41% have been determined to be disinformation.  

Real411In some weeks, the level of complaints found to be mis- and disinformation compared with the complaints received could be as high as 70%, while in others it could be 30%. 

Often periods where there were more complaints (usually in line with peaks in infections and/or where there was a government announcement about lockdown or new regulations), the number of complaints found to be disinformation also tended to be higher. 

We also see significant peaks and troughs in the weeks where the number of complaints varied from 95 to 20 in a week. At this stage we are unable to determine the reasons for the peaks and troughs; it might be that people reported more or less, it might be due to changes by platforms in their AI – such as the decision to automatically remove anti-vaccine content, or it might be that the nature of disinformation in South Africa is more haphazard in nature. What the overall number and levels of disinformation do suggest is that there is a clear need for Real411 and it is filling an important gap in combating mis- and disinformation: 

“Given the increasing scale, scope and significance of information and news disseminated on behalf of increasingly large and distinct corporations through social media, and the sort of public citizen response represented by Real411 – with spin-off benefits in terms of skills honed and small democratic cultures strengthened – is really invaluable” – Jonathan Klaaren (Real411 Legal Reviewer). 

There has also been some debate about which platforms have more disinformation. When we look at the breakdown of all complaints across the platforms, we see the following:

disinformationMost complaints are based on content found on Twitter, at 38%, followed by WhatsApp (24%) and Facebook (20%). Less than 10% are from dodgy sites, and only 4% are from YouTube. Given the relatively low levels of Twitter users in South Africa, (about nine million according to World Wide Worx or 4.7 million active users) the level of reporting on Twitter is high.  

According to Statista.com, there were roughly 22 million Facebook users in South Africa in 2020. It is difficult to find accurate figures for WhatsApp use, but there does seem to be common agreement across a range of measurement sites that WhatsApp is the most used platform in South Africa. We thus see that two of the most popular platforms also have the most complaints. Unlike Facebook, which can see what goes where and can track all content, on WhatsApp the real challenge is that it is very difficult to get a sense of what is circulating and track content because it is all end-to-end encrypted. Not only does the encrypted nature of WhatsApp make it tricky to track disinformation, but it also makes it harder to counter and disseminate counter-narratives.

When we look at the percentage spread of content found to be disinformation across the platforms, we see the following:

Real411A third of all disinformation content occurs on Whatsapp, followed by Twitter at 30% and then Facebook, with 24%. We see that 57% of disinformation content reported to Real411 occurs on Facebook and WhatsApp. If we consider the findings by the top three platforms and the percentage of complaints that were found to be disinformation, we see the following:  

disinformation

While the most commonly complained-about platform (Twitter) has just above a quarter of the content found to be disinformation, it is significantly less than WhatsApp at 47% and Facebook at 40%. It is clear even with the unknowns (of how much disinformation is out there) that WhatsApp presents the greatest challenge for combating mis- and disinformation.  

It is critical therefore that in addition to continuing to report to Real411 we also share counter-information that highlights that the content is fake. At the same time, we also need to ensure greater emphasis on the public acquiring the skills to help discern the real from the rubbish.  

Some apps like News Rover are designed to help with this, but it is clear we need ongoing efforts and public education campaigns about key issues such as vaccines and Covid-19.

We have previously looked at the impact of Real411, and we know that the platforms do indeed respond positively to takedown requests when they are sent. We also know that Real411 operates on the basis of a group of dedicated volunteers and as we celebrate one year of Real411, we asked them why they continue to volunteer and what value they think Real411 has. These are some of their responses:

“As much as I hate mis- and disinformation, I feel very strongly about freedom of expression. It’s not always easy to strike a balance between the two against the backdrop of political correctness and evolving community values and beliefs. I volunteered because I felt that with my particular background, I was perhaps in a better than average position to contribute to Real411’s important work.

Misinformation on social media is a grave threat to our hard-won democracy, and Real411’s work is important to weed out malicious untruths and half-truths without unfairly infringing on the right of freedom of expression – and without government interference.” — Sandy Mcdonald, Legal Reviewer

“When used well and wisely, information can be a powerful force for good. If distorted for selfish purposes or through ignorance, it can cause fear, confusion, hatred or even harm. Volunteering for Real411.org gives me the opportunity to help stop the spread of misinformation that has the potential to cause unnecessary harm, hatred or fear.” — Simone Gregor, member Secretariat

“It is important to have complaints relating to digital content expeditiously and credibly addressed by individuals adhering to a robust jurisprudence that is grounded in the values of freedom of expression and fidelity to the value of truth.

The two alternatives are a culture of censorship and an environment in which speech simply doesn’t matter.” — Paul Hjul, Legal reviewer

“Real411 is important because it highlights the importance of credible journalism. It awakens and sharpens your senses towards seeking the truth and discerning false information and disinformation campaigns.” — Media Reviewer

“Perhaps no other event in recent history has more clearly demonstrated the dangers that mis- and disinformation can bring than the Covid-19 pandemic. Certainly, at other intervals in my life I’ve been aware of an insidious side to a number of narratives, and the information that people employ to drive them, but the past year has really opened my eyes up to the stark and concerning reality of the challenges and dangers mis- and disinformation can bring – not only to individuals, like you and me, but to the very foundations of democracy.

“A sense of helplessness in the midst of a pandemic, and a desire to have a minuscule part in the fight against the scourge of mis- and disinformation, and the bad actors who direct it, prompted me to jump at the opportunity to become a reviewer for Real411.

“I believe that Real411 is important because it puts the power of reporting mis- and disinformation, hate speech, journalist harassment, and incitements to violence, into the hands of each and every single South African citizen. It calls upon every individual to develop a healthy sense of scepticism with regard to the information they consume, which hopefully contributes in its own way to citizens who are more aware of what is and isn’t real, thereby empowering them to make use of credible information to inform their opinions, decisions, and even their vote when the opportunity is presented.

“Real411 ensures no one is lulled into a sense of apathetic complacency, but advocates active citizenry while helping to (hopefully) lessen the potential harm that could result from mis- and disinformation campaigns. There are existing fact-checking organisations which are integral to our democracy and which do incredible, time-consuming work.

“Real411 just allows for people to report things that they see in real time without burdening the already stretched resources of more formal forensic investigating bodies. That said, what’s important is that as the need arises to do so, we do have the relationships and network we need to flag issues directly with the platforms, the authorities and any forensic investigators who could put the information to use in a broader context.” — Robyn Porteous – Technology Reviewer

As we approach elections in 2021, we know that mis- and disinformation will play a part. Real411 and the team will be working to mitigate its impact and will work with partners to curb its spread, including DFR Lab, CABC and the IEC. As we build up to the election, we will be asking for volunteers to join the reviewer teams, so if you have legal, social media/technology and or media expertise and you want to help act against those who wish to undermine our democracy, deepen divides, spread confusion, anger and anxiety, then please be in touch. DM

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. 

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