Fake online news spreads panic

2020-04-14 06:00
Those found guilty of creating and spreading fake news could face prosecution.PHOTO: Samantha Lee-Jacobs

Those found guilty of creating and spreading fake news could face prosecution.PHOTO: Samantha Lee-Jacobs

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In an era where social media is meant to live up to its purpose, it seems to be more destructive than helpful to the general public.

The increase in fake news and rumours surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic has created undue panic among residents.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp were designed to connect people across the globe, affordably and efficiently. However, in recent years, these sites have become popular among those who spread and create fake news.

On Wednesday 18 March, the national government issued a Government Gazette, stating that fake news and disinformation surrounding the pandemic is considered a criminal offence. Reformative measures, such as a fine or imprisonment, have been put in place.

Examples of fake news are flyers with departmental logos, memoranda from the office of the presidency and fake accounts. Disaster pictures which claim to show results of the pandemic are also flooding social media only for it to be revealed these scenarios were caused by tornados or hurricanes.

One such incident that cut close to home was a message sent to residents at the start of the lockdown, saying that police stations would be closed during this period. The stations included Delft, Mfuleni, Kuilsriver and Khayelitsha, among others. The post advised police officials to stay away from work until after the Easter weekend.

Provincial police spokesperson Brig Novela Potelwa said all 151 police stations in the Western Cape remained fully operational. She said provincial police management viewed the posts as “mischievous, meant to sow unnecessary panic and confusion”.

Potelwa added: “Any police communication pertaining to operations at police stations is disseminated through official police mediums and platforms.”

In another instance, a WhatsApp message did the rounds, reporting that the City of Cape Town would disconnect the water supply to communities.

Eddie Andrews, councillor for ward 78, said this same message was spread during the drought period.

Andrews called on residents to contact a reliable source to verify information or contact their ward councillors for City-related matters.

“Your assistance to not further create any unnecessary anxiety would be most appreciated,” said Andrews.

And it seems no one is exempt. There was even a fake account created which claimed to be that of premier Alan Winde.

On his official page, the premier posted a picture of the fake profile, urging residents not to interact with it.

“Fake news from the beginning has been a problem for us. It is not only in South Africa but across the world. You have seen in our reaction very stringent fines now in place for fake news,” says Winde.

“We ask people to please think about it before posting something. Ask yourself if this is real and try and track it or trace it to see that it is valid. If you are in any doubt, don’t post it.”

Winde said residents could also post this at the frequently asked questions section on their website to have the information verified.

“Have it validated because fake news does not help anyone during this lockdown,” he said.

In a recent incident, a 55-year-old man was arrested for sharing a video on social media, calling on residents to refuse being tested for Covid-19. The video referenced a single incident in the UK that deliveries of Covid-19 kits would be delayed as core parts had been contaminated with the virus.

The man said the video is the “most important message you will ever hear in your entire life” and called on South Africans not to allow the 10 000 community field workers to screen or test them as “there is a possibility that the swabs are contaminated with Covid-19”.

The man was arrested on Monday 6 April.

Referring to this instance and others, Winde demonstrated the test in a video of his own and shared it on social media.

He said: “There has been a lot of fake news around the safety of the test and what it entails. Having now undergone it myself, I can say the test was slightly uncomfortable, being something I had never experienced before, but it was both painless and is 100% safe. I urge all those in areas where community testing is being offered to take up the opportunity. Community testing helps us to determine the presence of the virus in specific areas and is an important tool in helping to stop the spread.”

Provincial health minister Dr Nomafrench Mbombo agreed.

“Fake news and misinformation around health news constitute a potential threat to the public health and it robs people of vital information that can help them to get the best out of the health system.

“This is not the time for bad jokes, nor a time to instil fear. I welcome the enthusiasm to screen and test despite recent fake news events. This has led us to expanding more sites to ensure that many people get to be screened and tested,” she said.

Police have also instilled a zero-tolerance stance.

Potelwa said: “Social media users are henceforth warned against posting untruths and advised to verify the information before disseminating.”

  • To report fake news, WhatsApp 067 966 4015 or email fakenewsalert@dtps.gov.za. Include a link or screenshot of the post, article or document in the description.

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