WEEKLY TRENDS IN SOUTH AFRICA OP-ED
Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: The power of political spin
Since March 2020, Real411 has received complaints about a range of digital harms. Most were related to mis- and disinformation about Covid-19. This shifted to vaccines, and it is now shifting to the local government elections. This week we look at the power of spin and how it has been used by political parties to deflect and divert attention from two key issues.
Week 33: Local government elections keep spinning.
Let’s be clear: spin is an integral tool of political parties and they all use it with varying degrees of success. The journalist Nic Dawes referred to it as the “art of dressing bullshit up as bon-bons”. Indeed, spin is frequently used to try and make disasters look not quite so bad. More usefully, spin is also used to divert attention from an issue and focus the public’s attention on something else. It seems fair to suggest that all political parties use the tactic to divert attention from errors, crises and weaknesses.
Now you might think that because people have a cynical or sceptical approach to what politicians say, that they and the media would be wise to their tricks and not fall for the spin. In many instances, this may well be the case, but as the monitoring by Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) has shown over every election period we have monitored (and we have monitored all of them since our transition to democracy), it tends to be political parties that set the news agenda in an election period.
Political parties focus on the things they can get good coverage for, like door-to-door walks, so there are opportunities for the media to show them talking to actual people. In 2019 for example, 24% of all stories monitored were about political party campaigning and party politics. None of the real challenges like land, inequality, gender-based violence, climate change, poverty or disabilities made it above 1% in terms of stories being about those issues.
Parties tend to set the agenda, and some are better at manipulating the agenda than others. The EFF are experts at driving media coverage. (Keep an eye out for analysis of the elections and media coverage @mediamattersza on Twitter.) So far not that unusual, but when the spin is used to divert from what may be considered disinformation it needs to be called out.
We highlight two instances. On 19 September in our weekly Trends in Disinformation, we examined the approaches of some parties to vaccines. One of them was the ACDP and, as is their right, they responded to our piece:
“The opinion piece, ‘Disinformation in the time of Covid-19: Vaccines and political parties’, penned by Media Monitoring Africa, unfortunately, falls into the burgeoning trap of trivialising dissimilar views as ‘disinformation’.
“The argument proceeds to criticise the ACDP regarding its support for ivermectin…
“The media should drive discussion and thereby expand views through facilitating debate. It should accordingly be careful of careless distortion in the name of certain views. Doing so is dangerous in a world of complex problems (with implications for governance), of which honesty and truth are increasingly casualties. Readers must be circumspect when deciding what constitutes ‘vital information’ and what does not. Unfortunately, the articles mentioned here applied an oversimplified approach to a serious and compounded issue.”
To be clear, where we make an error we will correct and apologise if appropriate. Ordinarily, we don’t engage in replying to a reply but, in responding to our piece, ACDP MP Steve Swart said it was “opinion” and that we were “trivialising dissimilar views as disinformation”. Disinformation isn’t just a difference of opinion, and calling it so is not only inaccurate, but is a classic piece of spin that seeks to undermine the issues we had raised in our piece.
It is not our opinion that the leader of the ACDP, the Rev Kenneth Meshoe, in a tweet called Dr Susan Vosloo (the same doctor who implied Covid-19 was a creation of Big Pharma, and who underplayed the number of Covid-19 deaths, and who implied the vaccine isn’t safe or effective) a “Champion of Human Rights”. It is not our opinion that the ACDP site didn’t carry, and still doesn’t carry, the link to the SA coronavirus site, despite its importance being highlighted in regulations under the Disaster Management Act Regulations (see Reg 5.1.4). It is also not our opinion that the ACDP site has very little in the way of information about Covid-19. What is curious is that in his reply, Swart, in arguing that the ACDP is not anti-vaccine, is careful not to mention the Covid-19 vaccine in the vaccines they do support:
“The ACDP is not opposed to vaccines. They have been shown to be effective against a range of severe and widespread health problems around the world, for many years. As with all vaccines, however, we require that they must be voluntary and that the person being vaccinated is fully informed of the contents as well as the proven indications and contraindications of the vaccine, before giving informed consent to be vaccinated.”
Pity the ACDP social media team doesn’t seem to post credible sources where adverse effects about the Covid-19 vaccines are noted, or offer any information to their supporters about where they might find the ingredients of the Covid-19 vaccines. Instead, they tweeted posts that imply the Covid-19 vaccines aren’t effective.
Finally, Swart says of our piece that it “… proceeds to criticise the ACDP regarding its support for ivermectin”. Again, it isn’t our opinion that the ACDP supports ivermectin, this is admitted by Swart, and we noted it in our piece. What we, and countless scientists, have raised about ivermectin is its lack of proven effectiveness in treating Covid-19. Currently, there is very low to low certainty as to its effectiveness. See here, here and here.
For a person who wishes there to be different views put forward and accurate information, it seems that Swart has missed the information about ivermectin’s effectiveness for treating Covid-19. The rest of the piece by Swart makes for a diversion to stress the importance of different views, and soft campaigning, and diverts attention from the duplicity of saying they aren’t anti-vaccine, just pro-choice, but only posting limited Covid-19 content or content that is at best ambiguous about vaccines.
Another case of spin being used to divert attention was a complaint received on the Real411 system. In this case, it involved the DA, which, instead of using spin merely to divert and campaign, used it to attack. Complaint No 1826 is a complaint about a tweet posted by Helen Zille and later deleted. The post involved an altered video of Peter de Villiers, former SA national rugby team coach. In the accurate and undisputed video, De Villiers notes that he supports Good Party’s Patricia de Lille because “she has a history of corruption busting”. In the altered video, De Villiers can be seen saying that he supports De Lille because “she has a history of corruption”. The video edit is easy to see and it is clear that the original was altered.
Instead of the focus being on the edited version shared by the DA Federal Chair, Helen Zille, the focus was shifted to a seeming climb-down by the Electoral Commission (IEC) and the Real411 system. News24 reported, “Elections watchdog IEC backtracks on disinformation probe against Zille”. The DA opted to attack the IEC’s power to determine it was election-related disinformation. It’s an important intervention by the DA, for the decision to attack the IEC rather than address the altered content shared is clearly spin. The legal basis for the IEC’s DA decision is sound. It is also why Real411 updated the ruling to state:
“Update and clarification: We have been advised by the IEC, who have clarified that it can only investigate allegations of breaches of the Code but it is not empowered to impose any sanctions or issue any remedial action in that regard. If it is of the view that there is a prima facie breach of the Code, the IEC must refer the matter to the Electoral Court for the appropriate sanctions to be imposed by that Court. As a result, the decision we communicated has been deleted. However, the offending content in question has now been removed and this complaint is now resolved.” Real411 1826
In July, the Supreme Court handed down judgment in a case between the IEC and the DA. The focus of the case was on whether the IEC had the power to make a finding that a provision of the Electoral Code of Conduct had been contravened. The court, in essence, found that as a breach of the electoral code is a criminal offence with the possibility of imprisonment, the IEC could not determine a breach of the code or impose a sanction. This sounds fair and logical, as in the ordinary course of things the IEC should investigate and then take matters to the Electoral Court.
The problem arises as to what to do about each and every piece of disinformation. It is one thing when parties are signatory to the code, as in the above instance, but what about when it is a citizen who produced the altered video, as appears to be the case in the current example? It wasn’t the DA that created the video, but the party did share it.
It also leaves the IEC now in the unenviable position where despite the video clearly being altered, the IEC is not able to say that it constitutes election-related disinformation. The DA was correct to point out that the IEC doesn’t, in line with the SCA ruling, have the power to determine a breach. The IEC can, however, still investigate cases and refer them to the relevant platforms where it sees fit and it can still take matters to the Electoral Court. In conducting its investigation it seems fair and reasonable to conclude that there is a prima facie case that the video was altered. The IEC may well decide to investigate further and refer the matter to the Electoral Court. For our current purposes though, what is clear to us is that in challenging the IEC the DA has managed to shift attention from the sharing of the post.
We know that we cannot remove every piece of disinformation, but the more we expose it, the more platforms act and take down content that is in breach of their own community guidelines, the greater the awareness and the more difficult it is for those who seek to spread disinformation.
We need people to keep on standing up and reporting those who seek to exploit fears, those who display no compassion and seek to heighten fear. It won’t stop disinformation, but it may reduce its spread and cause less harm. It is critical that we all play our part in combating and mitigating these digital offences. If you suspect that content you come across is disinformation, hate speech, harassment of journalists or incitement to violence, there is something you can do about it.
To make it even more simple, download the Real411 mobile app. Again, we take this chance to remind you: we are in that magical period where political parties need to show us that they care, so in addition to asking what they will do in your area, ask them to issue one public statement that highlights and condemns any attacks on journalists and then to demonstrate what action they took to help combat that. If they are edgy or push some other hogwash agenda, don’t easily vote for them because they don’t believe in democracy. DM
William Bird is director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) and Nomshado Lubisi is communications manager at MMA, a partner in the 411 platform to counter disinformation.
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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