OP-ED

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

By William Bird and Thandi Smith 1 June 2021

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 misinformation and disinformation to do just that. This week, we look at what happens to the work done by Real411 and answer some questions we have been asked.

William Bird and Thandi Smith

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. 

The Real411 platform has been receiving complaints related to disinformation, hate speech, incitement to violence and harassment of journalists since March 2020. Over the past week or two, we have received a number of questions about how Real411 works, what happens once a complaint has been assessed and how credible the system is. We thought it would be a good opportunity to address some of the key questions below. 

So, the Real411 combats disinformation – how exactly does it do this? 

Any member of the public can submit a complaint that they feel could potentially be disinformation, hate speech, incitement to violence or harassment of a journalist online. 

Once the complaint has been submitted, the process on the back end side of the platform begins. Here we have several experts in either the tech, media or legal fields, and three of these experts each individually assess a complaint. Once the complaint has been assessed and a finding has been made (by each individual – which means there are three findings), a member of the secretariat then reviews each assessment. The secretariat role is filled by a legal professional. The final assessment is then conducted and a finding is published. 

Once a finding is published, what happens to the complaint? 

Once the secretariat has reviewed the assessed complaint, the level of action needed to be taken is then determined. This could be from as simple as issuing an infographic on the finding to alert the public to the specific issue, to something more serious such as requesting the content to be removed from the particular platform (there have been a number of successful removals of content, when the content has been found to be disinformation or another serious digital offence). 

How do we know the process is credible and can be trusted? 

The platform has been developed in partnership with a number of different stakeholders, and all the partners involved can be viewed at the bottom of the website (Real411). 

Media Monitoring Africa is the organisation that maintains and runs the process, and every part of the process of the review of complaints is in line with our current legislation and, ultimately, based on the rights enshrined in our Constitution. 

Our methodologies, vision and mission have remained consistent since the organisation was established in 1993, and as all our approaches are based on the foundation of human rights, ensuring the public interest is at the forefront of everything we do remains the priority. We are transparent about our funders, our partners, and this is no different when it comes to the Real411 platform. 

It was a bad and grumpy week, not just for the communications outfit Digital Vibes who, erm, didn’t communicate, and not just for the national department of health, but for all those groups that volunteer their time and energy at no cost to help ensure there is a plan to communicate issues around the vaccine rollout and to combat mis and disinformation.  

Chris Vick wrote this piece that began to express some of the anger at the scandal, but also the perverse nature of the pandemic where there is so much goodwill to work together and donate time and energy, countered by those who take advantage of the chaos to enrich themselves with seemingly nothing in return. 

As we have observed previously, where there is poor, insufficient or no communication – and where there is uncertainty, fear and anxiety – disinformation thrives and will fill the gaps.  

To mitigate this, the idea is that if we know where the key gaps are and what the emerging threats and trends are, then we can not only ensure better communication but we can also help directly counter the disinformation.  

In this piece we offered some insight, but in concrete terms here is some of the content being produced. The good news is that there isn’t just one group doing the listening: there are a whole bunch of them; some use surveys, some use focus group discussions and community engagement, and others use sophisticated social media analysis tools.  Real411 is able to identify some of the more urgent and egregious examples.  

Each week the group meets, coordinated by Health Enabled, with some really hardworking people from the national health department. We are joined by other local and international experts, including from the World Health Organisation.

Discussions are fascinating as, despite the different methodologies, target groups and points of access, some common areas emerge. These in turn are structured into key trends that have been observed.  

We then look at the common rumours and misinformation that have been circulating and recommended actions are provided. A copy of last week’s report can be seen below.

  SA COVID-19 & Vaccine Social Listening Report – 31 May 2021

The big question is if the health department and the next group in the chain of communication hear what’s being put forward and act on it.  We have to hope so. People’s lives are at stake.

We are all in this battle together and all have a role to play. You can also play your part. Remember, if you come across content on social media that could potentially be hate speech, incitement, harassment or disinformation, report it to Real411. To make it even easier, download the Real411 mobile app.

Again, we take this chance to remind you: We are approaching that magical period where political parties need to show us that they care, so in addition to asking about what they will do in your area, ask them to issue one public statement a month in the lead-up to the local elections that highlights and condemns any attacks on our journalists, and then demonstrate what action they took to help combat that. 

If they are edgy or push some other irrelevant agenda, don’t vote for them – they don’t believe in democracy. DM

If you come across content on social media that could potentially be hate speech, incitement, harassment or disinformation, report it to Real411.

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]"

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