Maverick Citizen

DISINFORMATION IN A TIME OF COVID-19 OP-ED

Top five trends over 2021 and a few holiday tips

For the past 42 weeks, we have unpacked, analysed and sought to explain the diverse elements of disinformation. This week, we look at our top five trends in disinformation over 2021, and then provide a few tips for the holidays.

As our last piece for 2021, we wanted to start with a big thank you! There are so many to thank, like our Real411 volunteer reviewers and the Real411 secretariat. But our biggest thank you goes to all of you who take the time to submit complaints.  

The Real411 system has received a little over 1,000 complaints this year – most of them Covid-19-related. One of our colleagues pointed out that this is a mere drop in the ocean of disinformation and digital harms. It may well be, but each piece that is exposed or removed undermines the network effect of the disinformers who attempt to create chaos with each post. It helps to create that much more awareness and makes it easier to spot disinformation the next time.  

In addition, all the complaints help us build up an idea of the networks behind the disinformation and with the same criteria consistently applied, gives us solid evidence for further action. 

Finally, by reporting, the public and those most impacted by the disinformation have a quick and easy way to act. Disinformation isn’t going to disappear. Like other social evils, the best we can do is find the most effective means of dealing with it, mitigate its impact, upskill the public in digital literacy, ensure the platforms act, ensure the government supports rights-based responses, and make it harder and harder for the disinformers to be successful in fear mongering and in seeking to destroy our democracy.  

So, thank you to those who submit complaints. Please keep doing so. Combatting disinformation is everyone’s business.

If we have a look at disinformation around Covid, we see that it tends to be responsive to whatever new and emerging issue is making the news. 

When the pandemic first started the focus of most disinformation was whether the virus existed or not. As reality became so overwhelming for even the disinformers, they shifted to suggesting that all you needed to survive were natural cures.  

Then the disinformation moved to how Covid was being exaggerated and people weren’t really dying, to how vaccines are dangerous, untested, evil, don’t work, have side effects that maim or kill, are about killing us in two years and/or controlling the public. 

Recently the disinformation has shifted to the Omicron variant – being a made-up variant to control and kill us, and of course how mandatory vaccination is really all a plan to control and kill us. In between we have heard how vaccines make women and men infertile, and more recently how water cuts in big cities like Johannesburg were really about the plan to pour evil chemicals into our water to – yup you guessed it – control and/or kill us all.

If there is one, clear tell-tale sign of disinformation it is that it emerges to fill the gaps of uncertainty. Whatever is new or uncertain, where there is controversy, anxiety, fear and/or anger, disinformation – like dog poo on bare feet – will squish between the toes and can prevent us from seeing the real issues.

Our top five trends, in no particular order, over the year: 

  • Abuse the science. As pointed out last week, the science behind Covid and vaccinations is not easy to understand. The concepts, issues and terminology are new to just about everyone. So new, in fact for most people, that experts sat for weeks to come up with appropriate terms and explanations in African languages. Because of these complexities, it has been easy for pseudo-scientists and all manner of wingnuts, in between, to produce reams of scientific sounding bumf to confuse and scare and sometimes sound vaguely plausible.
  • Doctors who should be boarded: We have written about these over the year. Doctors who are registered, but seem to have a spelling error on their certificate as they think they signed up to the “Hypocritic Oath” which they use to spew untested, unscientific, unproven nonsense. It’s a pity that the Health Professions Council of South Africa seems to have the same drive for action as Boris Johnson’s hairbrush in acting and holding them accountable for their actions. Let’s hope the HPCSA finds its start button in 2022.  Doctors who disinform, undermine the trust and credibility of all doctors.
  • Framing for freedom. Like a David Hasselhoff song, there are some things that just shouldn’t be done, including comparing mask wearing to limiting rights, or vaccine certificates to the “dompas”.  Some of the slightly more creative disinformers have tried to frame evidence-based actions as limitations on our basic rights. We suspect they think this somehow gives their argument some kind of principled credibility. It doesn’t. All it does is demean basic rights, our history and exposes the paucity of their thinking even further.
  • Screaming fire in a packed theatre: Like the chopsticks who would scream fire when there isn’t one, in a crowded place, disinformers want chaos. We have written about this on a number of occasions. One of the best tell-tale trends of disinformation is that it seeks to cloud emotion. More often than not, disinformers spend little time or logic on the lies they spread. So to help gloss over the failures in logic, they work on emotion. They want you to be scared, angry, anxious, and fearful – if they can get you to panic so you cannot think clearly and rationally, all the better.
  • Recipe for disaster: Disinformers use a grain of truth mixed with a big dash of cognitive dissonance. One of the elements of disinformation that makes it powerful is that it usually has a grain of truth in the story, so there may be side effects to vaccines, for example. They will take that and extrapolate to make it so much worse. Like saying the common side effects are myocarditis and infertility! It can be believable because it does chime with reality. What they also do, however, is use cognitive dissonance – where our minds try to make sense of fundamentally contradictory information. A recent example comes from someone who really should be fired for pushing misinformation – our Minister of Minerals and Energy Affairs –  speaking about recent objections to Shell’s proposed exploration for gas, he is quoted as saying, “We consider the objections to these developments as apartheid and colonialism of a special type, masqueraded as a great interest for environmental protection.” There is a grain of truth here. The legacies of apartheid and colonialism are still with us and ring true in many respects. Then there is the cognitive dissonance. The person who is meant to serve the people of South Africa is comparing opposition to a multinational which seeks to wreak environmental havoc with colonialism and apartheid. The groups opposing aren’t colonialists, nor pushing for apartheid. The multinational, Shell, has and continues to maintain a system of neo-colonialism in African countries where it operates, see herehere and here. Minister Mantashe’s utterances move from merely inaccurate corporate lobbied twaddle to misinformation as it seeks to undermine legitimate objections to environmental harm. Far from calling them special types of colonialism and apartheid, the minister should be respecting the views of the public.

It’s been a really long year, more traumatic and stressful than 2020 even. If you reach the end of the year with your health and a job, it is like winning the lottery. So here are our five tips for happy holidays:

  • If you can’t get off social media, mess with the algorithms a little and search only for happy cute things, images and videos of beauty and things that are funny. If you see something that makes you feel anxious or panicked or that things are even worse, swipe past! If you can’t and it looks like a digital harm, report it to Real411.
  • Support our media! The Nobel Peace prize was awarded to two journalists. Both amazing – Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov. These are dangerous times, our journalists need our support. So, make sure to buy DM168City PressSunday TimesSunday World, and the dailies! Give them as gifts. Then message journalists on social media and show them some love and appreciation. You will feel good about giving them compliments and you’ll be helping to protect democracy.
  • Our Constitution is 25 years old. It may not be perfect, but it is worth celebrating, so read it and see why it’s our vision of the best we can be as a nation.
  • Be safe, wear masks, wash hands and get vaccinated.

Finally, our team are low on batteries, so Real411 will be taking a holiday too, but before we go there will be an update to the app so please download it and encourage your friends to do the same. It might only be reviewed in a few weeks, but we ask that if you see something dodgy, do something good and report to it to Real411. 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.

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

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"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]"