South Africa

Disinformation in a time of Covid-19 OP-ED

Celebrating the guardians of democracy — the news media

(Image: Freesvg.com)

This week we reflect on what the new threats to journalism are, why journalism is essential to democracy and what it’s got to do with disinformation.

Week 34: Commemoration, celebration and challenges 

On Wednesday, 19 October 1977, two newspapers, The World and the Weekend World, were banned and the editor, Percy Qoboza, was detained without trial for five months. The clampdown followed the death in detention of Steve Biko. On Tuesday, 19 October we commemorate the events of that day, which is now known as Black Wednesday.

We can draw much strength from the knowledge that our media cannot be arbitrarily silenced and banned, nor can journalists, or indeed any person, be detained without trial. (Despite what you might read on social media.) As much as we can and must celebrate such freedoms, we also use the day to highlight the new threats our media and journalists face and reinforce their critical role.

Two events have shaped where our news media are now: our transition to democracy, where freedom of expression is guaranteed as a right in the Constitution, supported by a strong media sector, and the development of digital technology. 

We have been looking at disinformation each week for more than 30 weeks. The threat it poses cannot be underestimated — it has the power to destroy the trust in and credibility of key institutions. In combating disinformation we have focused on a range of initiatives and tools, including Real411, critical digital literacy and policy-related matters.

One of the most effective tools for combating misinformation and disinformation is good journalism. By good journalism, we mean journalism that is balanced, accurate, fair, credible, informative and accountable. One of the key lessons from the pandemic has been the importance of the public having access to credible, accurate and informative information.

If only our media sector wasn’t in such a precarious position. The overwhelming majority of South African news media houses are struggling. Our failing economy has also hit our media, with decreased budgets for advertising and marketing. 

Many of our media find themselves between a rock and a hard place, where they are expected to operate as full digital businesses and at the same time keep their ailing print or analogue services functioning. 

Those who push for full-digital often ignore the reality that for many media companies, audiences simply aren’t there yet, they need a range of new skills to be fully digital and, more significantly, it doesn’t bring in the money. Analogue and print remain especially important for the millions of South Africans who don’t have access to affordable internet. 

Of course, not every media outfit is struggling in the current environment — Daily Maverick is one example of how it is possible to buck the trend, and not only survive, but thrive — but its methods aren’t something that every media house can copy.

We are also seeing the growth of specialised and alternative news media models, like amaBhungane, Bhekisisa, Spotlight, New Frame and GroundUp, so it isn’t necessarily all doom and gloom. 

Despite these examples, the trend over the past several years has seen media houses generally cutting down on journalists as they try to stay afloat. Another trend is that media houses have been upskilling their journalists to do even more with less. One of the key impacts of all these changes is that news media have less ability to carry out in-depth investigative stories. 

The challenges to our news media come at a time when people can get any kind of information — real or rubbish — on just about anything. Many of those reading this article are using mobile phones that act as a camera, record keeping, messaging, social plaything, gaming and communication tool, and are key means of receiving and imparting information. 

Digital and social media are always on, and the news and information they provide are in such quantities that we forget the algorithms that filter billions of posts. 

Just about anyone with a device can call themselves a journalist and create content. On a basic level, this has the potential to ensure that marginalised voices are heard, that issues and places that have been silenced can find a voice. 

It is clear that the internet offers wonderful possibilities, but at the moment it isn’t democracy or human rights driving the development of the internet. Instead, it is increasingly smaller numbers of megalithic capitalist entities that are not just making huge amounts of money, but are shaping and reshaping power. For the most part they are doing it in a manner that entrenches the digital divide as well as existing relationships of who has power and whose voices and issues are heard. 

Unlike before, where we relied on news media to tell us what is going on, we now rely on them to help filter, to help explain and contextualise events and issues and ensure that the information we receive is credible, accurate and fair. 

News media are often referred to as the Fourth Estate, the structure that holds power accountable and exposes wrongdoing. While this still holds true, news media now fulfil an additional, more basic role of democracy.

Because we can now access information about anything, news media are required to help us know what news and information we can trust and depend on to make informed decisions so we can exercise our rights. News media and good journalism are essential elements of a democratic state. We would go so far as to say that you cannot have a democracy without good journalism being produced and being accessible. 

Had our news media not reported on the Sharpeville massacre, the student uprisings in 1976, the thousands killed by third force actors in the dying days of apartheid, then the overthrow of apartheid could have taken significantly longer. Had our news media not reported the Aids denialism, the corruption of the Arms Deal, State Capture, Marikana, Life Esidimeni, and countless other travesties of justice, corruption and rights abuses, our democracy would be even more precarious. Had our news media not reported on Covid-19 and the need for vaccines, thousands more may well have lost their lives. 

That our media, journalists and newsrooms, despite the reality that there are fewer of them, despite the threats made against them, despite the misogyny, continue to try to help us understand what’s going on in the face of a deluge of counter claims and active disinformation, highlights their critical role. 

Our enemies are no longer the apartheid thugs and third force. Our enemies now are often faceless, they are enabled by social media, they can be hired to troll and as bots, they don’t even need to be human. 

What is clear is that the threats are life-and-death matters. Disinformation destroys democracy. As we commemorate the thousands of brave women, men and children who fought against apartheid, who were jailed, tortured and killed, we can also appreciate our current journalists who are fighting for our democracy.

The enemy has changed, but the threat remains just as grave and the cause just as critical. Our news media are key defenders of our democracy — from the big and powerful ones like the SABC to the smallest community newspaper.  

Just as overcoming the great evils of the past, like apartheid or Hitler, required the efforts and hard work of millions, so too our current defence of democracy requires all of us to play our role. It’s why we keep going on about combating disinformation.  

We know that we cannot remove every piece of disinformation, but the more we expose disinformation, 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 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 attack on our 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.

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

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