DISINFORMATION IN A TIME OF COVID-19 OP-ED
How disinformers use the fear of the unknown to cloud rational thought
Last week we looked at how disinformers use fear and anger to cloud rational thought, and in some cases stoop so low as to use dead children to peddle their lies. This week we look at another two cases that also use fear, not nearly as repugnant, but fear of the unknown. Fear of the lockdown.
This image shared on social media was also a story on Opera news (more about them in a little bit). It was reported and processed as complaint 1965 on Real411.org. It suggests a two-month lockdown, and warns that the public should stock up on alcohol presumably before the lockdown hits. Pick n Pay has denied that it is one of its posters and it doesn’t appear to have been used anywhere else.
What the poster does is speak to the future. Few people would welcome another lockdown which we know will significantly impact on our society with many negative consequences. What makes the content interesting is that it doesn’t use overly emotive language, but the suggestion that a giant retailer like Pick n Pay would put this out there may result in people thinking the retailer might know more than the ordinary member of the public.
To add to the confusion, legitimate fears and concerns about a lockdown have been in the news recently. News24 had a piece looking at modelling scenarios by the National Institute of Communicable Diseases. EWN had a piece that referenced business concerns about a fourth wave. So it is likely that a member of the public may have been exposed to some of the legitimate concerns about the fourth wave from news outlets, and if they had seen the poster above they may have been more inclined to believe it.
For disinformation to work, it usually has to have some grain of truth in it so that it resonates. By speaking to the future then, it immediately fuels a measure of anxiety precisely because the future is unknown. Again this isn’t a new technique, and one that is commonly used by marketers and advertisers – the fear of scarcity. So we see the poster and perhaps it resonates with some discussions we may have participated in or overheard, or read or heard something about in the news so we take note. We worry that Pick n Pay might know something that we don’t and could be preparing for a lockdown, so might think – gosh, I better stock up now! The moment we think about buying goods now, we might think about the need to hurry because others will also know about this and it might make us feel that we need to get in before others do. So if I want to have provisions for my family I better buy NOW! In other words, the content may lead to panic buying and elevated anxiety about a possible fourth wave.
The next example takes fear-mongering to a new level. Complaint 1960 on Real411 carries a video of a South African man, speaking from a beach telling us:
“There is a potential we are going to go into another hard lockdown in this country for absolutely no reason at all. The so-called coronavirus is disappearing very very quickly and they have to think very fast to find another way of keeping us locked down. The plan is to take us into a hard lockdown somewhere in December, possibly level four, even level five. This lockdown, we will never ever come out of. I want you to understand that very clearly. The idea behind the next lockdown is starvation and the total decimation of small and medium-sized business. This is to bring in the world order that Ramaphosa was talking about a few years ago.”
He goes on to talk about how it is the vaccine that is killing people in the thousands. So he manages, in two and half minutes, to introduce a conspiracy theory of a new world order, that Covid is man-made, that a new virus will be created to help keep people locked down and that the vaccine is killing people. Aside from his comments being fundamentally at odds with reality, the fear-mongering about another lockdown is taken to a new level.
In an earlier piece we wrote about how disinformers use their networks to push variations on a theme. One impact of a person pushing extreme conspiracy theories is that it makes lesser conspiracy-linked versions look far more reasonable. If those are then combined with others merely supporting, or endorsing a milder, more palatable version, it may suddenly seem like there is a reasonable contingent of people who believe whatever they are pushing. As a reasonable person you may then begin to wonder if, possibly, they have a point.
Often when we hear contrasting views we may decide that the truth might lie somewhere in between. The problem with that, in this instance, is that it creates a false dichotomy and gives legitimacy to an issue at odds with verifiable evidence and reality. In many areas, we accept this.
For example, we don’t need to debate that the use of the “k-word” is unacceptable in South Africa, or that the Nazis exterminated millions of Jews. Giving credence to views that the “k-word” isn’t too bad or that maybe the Nazis didn’t kill millions of Jews, sets up a false comparison where it becomes about whether one is more true than the other. The danger of that, of course, is that it detracts from the real harm that the “K word” causes or the millions that the Nazis killed.
The fear of the lockdown, linked as it is in the examples above, to an anti-vaccine approach undermines legitimate and credible health issues and debates. It limits and denies the existence of Covid. As a result we may end up spending time trying to avert panic buying, or persuading people there isn’t a level 5 lockdown planned. If we are busy doing that then we aren’t encouraging people to get vaccinated and or helping people work through legitimate vaccine hesitancy issues.
As we have noted previously, as a reader and active member of the public, you can help to fight the fear and anxiety by continuing to stand up and report those who seek to exploit fears, against 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 on digital media could potentially be disinformation, hate speech, harassment of journalists or incitement to violence, there is something you can do about it. See something dodgy, do something good, report it to Real411.
To make it even more simple, download the Real411 mobile app. The elections may be over, and most politicians have disappeared, but the dark forces will continue to seek to cause harm and Rea411 will keep on combating these evils. Keep an eye out for a more detailed analysis on the specific complaints and trends in the elections, coming soon. DM/ MC
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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