Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: Weekly Trends in South Africa
Crisis, planning and elections, or why we should really watch the IEC, the Springboks and Gift of the Givers.
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 22: IEC, the Springboks and Gift of the Givers
About 480-something days into our relentless Covid-19 pandemic, our efforts at vaccination are starting to finally kick off with well over 250,000 vaccines administered every day. There are legions of healthcare workers, queue monitors, cleaners, guards, drivers and all sorts of other assistants making that happen, and they should be applauded.
All signs suggest that as we get more vaccines the programme will continue to ramp up and run seven days a week. It really is an incredible achievement. Of course, it’s been badly delayed, but not always as a result of our own making. Similarly, despite billions of rands’ in damage, over 300 lives lost, we have seen communities, corporates and government come together. The problem, of course, is that in both these instances it required a deep crisis for the response. This isn’t about blaming the government; we are all in this mess, and those with power have each played their part (and continue to play) in the perpetuation of the crises.
Also, while different, our democratic nation was born in crisis. Birth, written by Peter Harris, tells a story of our elections. It reads like a thriller – the stakes were impossibly high and so many things were working against them being pulled off. We know how it turned out: our nation pulled off a miracle and the Independent Electoral Commission has been running our elections successfully ever since.
We have demonstrated time and again that in a crisis our nation is able to work both small and large miracles. The big problem is that being good in a crisis is all well and good, but it means that far too often the only time we can be good is in a crisis. Given that we are surrounded by crises, in order for us to act, we require not just a crisis, but a deep crisis. Of course, the lure of the crisis means it needs to be worse than the last one to act.
The violence of the past few weeks is a clear example: had action been taken when the violence was imminent, lives could have been saved and so much damage lessened. When scientists warned of the necessity of taking action because the third wave was coming, little notice was taken. So it is essential, given the uncertainties of our times, that we are good in a crisis but in addition to needing a crisis to act, it means we are in so many instances always reacting, saving and rescuing, instead of building and preventing and thus limiting and mitigating the unexpected.
The malnutrition of children is so much worse now in the Covid crisis because it was already horrendous before it hit us. The 2020 Children’s Institute Child Gauge showed that one in four children are stunted. It can only be much, much, worse now.
What has all this got to do with disinformation? Quite a lot. Most obviously we know disinformation rises and thrives in a crisis. Heightened tensions, fear, anxiety, multi-causal challenges, and poor communication, all offer delight to disinformers.
Existing in a near perpetual state of crisis and crisis management means we are also increasingly making our institutions and the area of the crisis easy targets for disinformation, which only deepens the crisis. But it doesn’t have to be this way and we have at least three examples of what’s possible when we either plan for the crisis or do our best to avoid them.
Gift of the Givers is an amazing institution; in a matter of days it is able to dig boreholes for hospitals, provide food locally or regionally as well as medical supplies to deal with the third wave. In other words, in a crisis, you don’t need a fictional superhero, you just need Gift of the Givers (of course there are other brilliant institutions doing similar amazing work; it is just a great example). Being that efficient comes with a huge amount of planning, forecasting and preparation. While brilliant in a crisis, the organisation and people behind the scenes are the definition of cucumber cool.
The Springboks, like many other national teams, have had their fair share of crises. Watch Chasing the Sun for a behind-the-scenes look at just how much preparation goes into 80 minutes on the field. When there is a crisis, they have a plan, a team of experts who can work on every aspect and mitigate the impact. If they lose a player for bad behaviour in a game, they have practised with 14 men for that scenario. Again, this approach isn’t that unusual for well-resourced sporting teams but the Springboks, as the best in the world, showed the impact of all these things coming together. You might say that it’s easy for them to focus on a game or series of games, but what about outside of sport?
The IEC has successfully run every election since we became a democracy in 1994. Sure, there have been problems, some of them really significant, but they have been able to mitigate most of them. In the middle of a global pandemic, have they panicked or hid? Nope. They got on with planning the elections, in line with their mandate. Then they appointed a commission chaired by Justice Dikgang Moseneke, who released his report in about eight weeks. Justice Moseneke recommended that the elections be delayed, and on Friday the IEC announced that it would be approaching a court to request the elections be deferred until February 2022. Importantly, it has said that until a decision is taken, it will continue with existing plans for the elections. Crisis mitigation. We are not suggesting the IEC is perfect, like any critical institution it has problems and it gets things wrong, but it does have a plan and timetable which always starts years before the next major elections. It’s why we have been working with them since last September on our plans to help combat disinformation in the run-up to elections. Watch this space for some cool announcements of what is coming.
We already know some of what to expect in the run-up to elections. We know that there will be images of ballot boxes that have been tampered with, of votes that have been altered; we know there will be threats, direct and indirect, of violence and efforts to undermine the elections. We know there will be stories about the registration system and conspiracy theories and how existing issues like Afrophobia will be used to distract and divert attention from other crises. This time there will be a more coordinated response.
While great examples, what is common to the three we have highlighted isn’t magic (though all need their fair share of luck) but rather planning, implementation and keeping focused on the end goal. Over the past 20-odd weeks we have highlighted various aspects around disinformation and other digital harms. In some cases, through early action and reporting to Real411, certain events did not occur or their impact was mitigated. It’s tempting to exist from crisis to crisis as lots can be glossed over and forgiven, but the harm, loss of life and damage done could be so much less if we started to put plans in place for crises – before they happen and not have to make them up on the fly.
Effective communication and clear communication plans would have mitigated much of the harm caused by disinformation around Covid-19. There will continue to be those who live in an alternate reality where vaccines are plots to kill or microchip us, but for others there are legitimate fears, concerns, and questions. We have written previously about the work being carried out with the support of the National Department of Health and a group of volunteer experts which each week submits a listening report for action. (Note: We participate in the listening meetings and use key trends from Real411 to submit information). While there is often a positive response, it is astonishing that the efforts are included from within the department voluntarily, and that there is no broader emergency plan for communication. Instead, those developing messages rely on relationships with some media to disseminate potentially life-saving advice and information.
This piece by Chris Vick, with his Covid comms hat on, makes a convincing case for broadcast media to come together and support, through donated airtime, the dissemination of public service messages. To be clear, had it not been for the SABC and other broadcasters, additional educational content and channels as well as covering the Covid pandemic our crisis would be even worse, and even more pupils are likely to have dropped out of school. We can ask industry bodies like the National Association of Broadcasters to rally its members once again, but where is the government’s emergency communications plan that sets out processes and structures, and where will the budget come from to deal with a crisis?
The proverb, “the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second-best time is today” seems apt. We have clever and willing people in all sectors of our society; what we need to do is ensure we develop emergency plans that are practical, considered, and realistic that can be implemented. Waiting for a crisis to deepen to critical levels before we act keeps us in a vicious cycle. If we are to build our democracy and make real inroads in combating some of our deepest challenges, we need to act before the next crisis. The same argument can be made whether it is for an emergency plan of action for children – seemingly still to a large degree missing in action – to combat disinformation and other digital harms. So, we end this week with some good news. The Department of Communication and Digital Technologies this week held its first multi-stakeholder meeting to look at strategies to combat disinformation. The goal is not to announce knee-jerk laws but to do the work and develop local strategies for South Africa and the region in ways that build our democracy and human rights.
In the meantime, you can help by reporting digital harms to Real411. It won’t stop disinformation, but it may reduce the spread and cause less harm. What’s the best way to eat an elephant? One small bite at a time. Take your next bite.
It is critical that we all play our part in combating and mitigating these digital offences. If you suspect that content you come across could potentially be disinformation, hate speech, harassment of journalists or incitement to violence, there is something you can do about it. DM
Remember, if you come across content on social media that could potentially be disinformation, report it to Real411.
"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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