DISINFORMATION IN A TIME OF COVID-19 OP-ED
Sorting the real from the rubbish and challenging those who stir the Omicron pot of fear
This week we provide tips to help you sort the real from the rubbish when looking for more detailed information online. We also take a look at some of the examples of disinformation about the Omicron variant.
Week 41: Discerning the cred from the crud
It was another busy week for Real411, with complaints received that ranged from the vaccine being the invention of the devil to how the water interruptions for maintenance and repairs in Johannesburg were really about enabling the government to flood the water system with the latest variant. These examples are at the extreme and are easy to disprove by applying basic logic. For example, if “the government” really wanted to flood the water system with chemicals, why doesn’t it just add them at the purification plants? Why dig up a massive pipe to do so? Perhaps more tricky to disprove are the sources of information that look as though they might be credible.
The science around Covid-19, the vaccines and all the variants is tricky. There are, however, some excellent explainers about how they all work. This video from Family Guy explains scientific matters in fairly simple terms, while this scientific one offers a more detailed explanation.
While understanding the basics can be made easier, understanding vaccine efficacy and how vaccines work in more detail can bamboozle most non-experts. One reason that Professor Salim Abdool Karim, Professor Shabir Madhi, Dr Glenda Grey, Professor Francois Venter, the amazing people at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases and a host of others are so valuable to our nation is that they help the public understand what’s going on.
Of course, there are many other incredible experts, including ones available on platforms like TikTok – check out @drSiya to see what we mean. Then there are the institutions such as Unicef, the World Health Organization, the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance, the national Department of Health and groups like CovidComms and the Solidarity Fund, which have all been producing incredible content – from explainers to tips, facts and more, and much of it in African languages as well.
Of course, most people rely on the news media to give them information that is accurate, credible and accessible. For the most part, South Africa’s media have done really well, especially through entities like Bhekisisa, Health-e News, Spotlight, The Conversation and The Scientists Collective.
The majority of people in South Africa get their news from SABC Radio. This once again highlights the importance of a credible public broadcaster and of information being available in African languages.
One reason the metamorphosis of Independent Media from news organisation to alternative truth disseminators is so concerning is that when one media entity’s credibility is undermined, it has a negative impact on the credibility of all media. (See our piece on it here.)
Being able to trust our news media to provide accurate, balanced and accessible information is why we all need to support credible news sites. Supporting our news media means we need to call them out when they get things wrong, and also to support them by taking out subscriptions so they can survive.
The challenge comes when we try to find some of the more detailed research. How do people know which sites to trust and which ones not to trust? The trouble with many of the disinformation sites is that they often contain grains of truth and can portray a scientific air of authority to make what they say sound more credible. It’s a core reason why doctors who are spreading disinformation need to account to the Health Professions Council of South Africa for their harmful actions. Given that a person can find almost anything on just about any subject on the internet, our advice is to stick to trusted sources.
Our top 10 list of sites that will give you high-grade scientific, useful, credible, accurate, up-to-date information are:
- The National Institute for Communicable Diseases has a stack of useful and latest data, trends and modelling for South Africa.
- The South African Medical Research Council is really useful, especially for tracking excess deaths.
- The New England Journal of Medicine has peer-reviewed pieces and adheres to best scientific practice.
- The British Medical Journal is another excellent journal.
- The Lancet is one of the oldest medical academic journals.
- Nature, another excellent scientific journal, has this accessible piece on what we know about Omicron.
- Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, with its international focus, has much useful content.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has useful figures and data, focused on the US.
- The World Health Organization.
- The National Institutes of Health, directed by Dr Anthony Fauci.
Of course, there are others, but chances are that one of these sites will have information about any big breakthrough or major shifts in what is happening around Covid. So if you find something on another site, check it first against these before you share.
Here’s the latest on what we know about Omicron from Nature, which isn’t that much as yet, but we did see some really sloppy disinformation this week. South African scientists have been at the forefront of discovering new variants and recently Omicron has been the subject of global discussion.
However, the emergence of this variant became the fuel for conspiracy theorists and disinformers. A classic example is this poster, created by Becky Cheatle. She had photoshopped “Omicron variant” into 1970s sci-fi movie posters and one of the posters, seen below, was taken and reshared by many online users, including influential people, who used it to amplify the narrative that Covid-19 is a hoax as an Italian movie release in 1963.
This poster is originally from the Spanish film Sucesos en la IV Fase. The creator took to her social media page to explain that it was just a fun project and people should stop using it as “proof” that the virus does not exist. Although there is a movie from 1963 that is called Omicron, it has nothing to do with a virus – it is a spy movie. More disturbingly, we saw ostensibly credible media in Germany and Spain last week feeding off the inaccurate hysteria that South Africa had given rise to the new variant. What made the coverage more disturbing was the overt racism used by both to convey the fear-mongering.
In the case of the Rheinpfalz, the story was carried on 28 November, “The virus from Africa is with us”. We understand there was an apology. In the second example, a cartoon reminiscent of classical colonialist depictions of Africans was run in Spanish newspaper La Tribuna.
Depictions of swollen lips with the South African flag and the look of menace on the front character are simply racist. La Tribuna also apologised – but we don’t think they acknowledged the racism, but rather seemed to apologise to those who may have been offended.
The two examples, aside from being shockingly inaccurate, perpetuated misinformation about the Omicron variant. By using racism they were also able to feed negative stereotypes and heighten fear and anxiety about the variant. In these instances we see ostensibly credible newspapers that adhere to ethical journalism, feeding disinformation.
As we have noted previously, as a reader and active member of the public, you can help to fight fear and anxiety by continuing to stand up and report those who seek to exploit and 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 on digital media is disinformation, hate speech, harassment of journalists or incitement to violence, report it to Real411.
We are hurtling towards the end of 2021, but the dark forces will continue to seek to cause harm, and Real411 will keep on combating these evils. Keep an eye out for a more detailed analysis on the specific complaints and trends in the local government elections, coming soon. DM
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.
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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