OP-ED

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

By Thandi Smith and William Bird 9 May 2021

(Image: Adobe Stock)

As Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc in South Africa, those who seek to cause confusion, chaos, and public harm have powerful tools of mis- and disinformation to do just that. This week, we look at public communication and behind-the-scenes work that should give us more hope.

William Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) and Thandi Smith heads the Policy & Quality Programme at MMA, a partner in the 411 platform to counter disinformation. 

Week 11: Behind the scenes

It’s easy to feel disheartened about South Africa’s vaccination programme being so slow to get off the ground, not to mention the possibility of a third wave of Covid-19. 

Far too often our government has had a poor relationship with helping us understand the basics. Communication has often been treated as useful only when it is necessary for winning elections and seeking to control the state broadcaster.

When it comes to Covid-19, while our government can generally be commended for being guided by science, information during the pandemic hasn’t always been sufficient, clear or accessible. 

Remember those scientific briefings that were broadcast live? We were offered graphs and terms that would have made sense to final-year medical students and experts but not the ordinary public. This isn’t to say the sessions shouldn’t have been broadcast, but that easy-to-understand, accurate information needed to be communicated. Where there is no communication or poor communication it is easy for those seeking to push disinformation to step in and invent fake facts.

Communicating to the public about Covid-19 does not just rest with the National Department of Health (NDOH). The department is joined and supported by a litany of task teams from the Presidency and the Ministerial Advisory Committee, as well as the Government Communication Information Service, and the Department of Communications and Digital Technology. Across these, the government has also set up multi-sectoral task teams that have brought in mobile operators, social media platforms, big corporations, technology companies like Praekelt, broadcasters, and entities like Zadna, Icasa and the Film and Publications Board. 

When it comes to combating disinformation about vaccines and communicating about the vaccine strategy, MMA is fortunate to be one of the groups involved. The NDOH is driving the risk communication and community engagement strategy. It is a best-practice model that has been adopted in several countries and our efforts are supported by experts from the World Health Organization, Unicef, the Red Cross, Health Enabled and many of the others already mentioned. In addition to these, work is being coordinated along the lines of the African Infodemic Response Alliance (AIRA) to help provide a framework to:

  • Identify information gaps and misinformation;
  • Simplify technical knowledge;
  • Amplify correct information; and
  • Quantify the impact of interventions.

In practical terms, this seeks to coordinate all the work to enable a more unified national response. Real411 is one source of information, but Unicef, AIRA, the Red Cross and the health department have well-established tools to harvest information from communities, social media platforms and traditional media. By bringing all these efforts together we hope to develop a clear, comprehensive response. As it comes together, the communication can be more clearly tailored to address needs and fears, thus increasing the likelihood of success. While it may sometimes appear that little is being done, there are hundreds of people behind the scenes working diligently to combat Covid-19 disinformation.

Sometimes communication from the government has been insufficient.  This media release on the decision to pause the roll-out of the J&J vaccine after the blood clot scare was timeous, but after the decision was legitimately queried by other doctors and experts, there was apparent silence.

Communicating about the pandemic isn’t the task of the government alone.  A range of media organisations and dedicated health experts like Health-e News and Bhekisisa have produced consistently excellent content. Mainstream media have dedicated efforts to reporting on Covid – from experts offering diverse views in The Conversation, to various initiatives, including Maverick Citizen and its Scientist Collective reporting and giving insight into critical issues. 

Our public broadcaster, the SABC, despite its limitations, set up an education channel and ran thousands of hours of public service messaging. Broadcasters, small commercial publishers and community media have dedicated programmes to help the public understand Covid-19. Even popular music stations have sought to communicate Covid-19 issues.  

Few in digital media opposed the government’s directive for all sites to carry links to the official Covid-19 site. Mobile operators also assist with zero-rating messages, educational websites and providing access to schools.

In addition to those, we have seen civil society initiatives like CovidComms where communications professionals help communicate complex issues. Civil society organisations also got to work, including the C19 People’s Coalition, and more recently we have seen the Health Justice Initiative taking the fight about vaccine equity to anyone willing to listen.

It remains critical for people to be sceptical – to question, to demand accountability, to expect more and better. We need to get our vaccine strategy rolled out. However, it is also important to acknowledge the work of those fighting for a better democracy.

You can also play your part. If you come across content on social media that could potentially be hate speech, incitement, harassment, or disinformation, report it to Real411. DM

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

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]"

OP-ED

Gauteng SOS: We are overwhelmed with calls for oxygen – Gift of the Givers

By Imtiaz Sooliman