Mandy Wiener: How to manage the outbreak of fake news in the time of corona

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Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula.
Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula.
Fikile Mbalula via Twitter

In this time of Corona, in the same way you are staying at home in a duty to #FlattenTheCurve of the virus, you also need to play a role in breaking the chain of viral fake news, writes Mandy Wiener.


In a spectacle which highlighted the extent of the Fake News tsunami that has accompanied the coronavirus pandemic of late, amused South Africans watched last week as Transport Minister Fikile Mbalula laid charges of "fake news" and "misinformation" against celebrity Somizi Mhlongo.

The mini-drama around Somizi’s lockdown extension "joke" brought attention to a defining factor of the coronavirus contagion – how it has been trailed by an extremely concerning and problematic wave of fake news and false information.

Personally, I have spent an enormous amount of time and energy over the past month wading through patently false information that has crossed my desk, chasing up to see if it has any semblance of truth to it. What I have found most intriguing though, is how many clever, insightful, educated people are responsible for disseminating what is quite obviously nonsense. It truly is an "infodemic".

It appears to be a combination of boredom, malicious intent and much higher than normal consumption of social media, compounded by anxiety, insecurity and an insatiable appetite for news. We find ourselves in a new territory where facts are conflicting and expert opinions are contradictory, opening the space for fake news to gain traction. It gathers even more momentum as we find ourselves in isolation, searching for connections with those we know through sharing whatever latest bits we gather.

Fortunately, the South African government has gazetted new laws under the Disaster Management Act to combat this. Citizens could receive a fine or a six-month prison term for spreading fake news about the coronavirus. Regulation 11(5)(c) of the act classifies fake news as "publishing any statement through any medium, including social media, with the intention to deceive any other person about measures by the government to address Covid-19".

Last week, a 55-year-old man in Parow in the Western Cape was arrested after a video went viral in which he claimed that Covid-19 testing kits were possibly contaminated. The implications of this claim are enormous and dangerous, particularly when trying to educate the public about the unknown. It hampers the response to the virus and causes more division.

READ | Man who posted fake 'contaminated Covid-19 test kits' video arrested

In just the last few days we have seen photoshopped images of TV news suggesting that the ban on alcohol sales will be lifted, and viral messages being circulated about an imminent address from the president about lifting lockdown. Government communicators and journalists are spending more time putting out fake news fires than dealing with real developments and it is an unnecessary distraction.

So when you see a WhatsApp message from a friend about "a friend who is a doctor at Bara" or "my neighbour who is a virologist at Groote Schuur hospital", don’t assume it’s true. Also, it doesn’t help to pass something on and say "Oh, I’m not sure if this is fake or not, but just in case…". Even if you have the very best of intentions, you can’t assume it is reliable.

If you want to check the credibility of social media posts, there are websites that you can turn to that fact check these things such as FullFact or Snopes. The website The Conversation has a handy guide to spotting fake news.

In summary, the main suggestions are to always question the source of information, check on official websites, check whether any organisation's logo is used in the message, look for bad English or repeated spelling and grammar mistakes, watch out for fake accounts mimicking the real thing and beware of over encouragement to share a viral message.

You would do well to rely on trustworthy, official sources for your information. Primary sources like the health department or National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) websites are even better than news organisations, which can also get it wrong. Some journalists and academics have all of a sudden styled themselves as epidemiologists, offering authoritative data analysis and opinion on government strategy which can be lacking in depth and context and that could contribute to understanding. Rather go directly to the source.

Perhaps the most useful of The Conversation’s tips is: "If the story appears to claim a much higher level of certainty in its advice and arguments than other stories, this is questionable."

Twitter and Facebook can be excellent tools to disseminate information but can also be festering septic tanks of conspiracy theories, from 5G being evil incarnate to how the coronavirus is a man-made pandemic. It allows nobodies with a handful of followers and a pseudonym to become instant experts in topics they know almost nothing about.

WATCH | The 5G Covid-19 conspiracy theory sweeping social media

Even for trusted sources in the media, it has been difficult to discern fact from fiction as so many well informed experts have not been united in their advice. Take as an example the confusing communication around the use of face masks to avoid passing on and contracting Covid-19. The World Health Organisation and the US Center for Disease Control at first seemed to be saying that wearing face masks didn’t assist in stopping the spread and that it wasn’t a silver bullet or gave a false sense of security. We were told not to wear cloth masks and to leave the medical grade PPE to the frontline health workers.

This was contradicted by other leading experts who advocated for a wider use of face masks and now most health authorities have reviewed their positions as world opinion shifted. Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize has also now appealed to South Africans to wear cloth masks in public. It can all be very overwhelming and confusing if those who you should be believing are contradicting themselves and one another.

As Philip Ball wrote in The Guardian this past weekend, "Sorting fact from fiction has become harder in this crisis because even well informed experts aren’t always united in their advice. Disagreements are normal in science, but are rarely a matter of life and death. It has been as frustrating and unsettling to science reporters as it has to everyone else to find experts at loggerheads over basic concepts such as 'herd immunity'."

We are all wading through this murky space as we try and learn what is best and share information that will help one another in this fight. We also need to ensure that those who are deliberately and maliciously trying to spread disinformation aren’t given the space and opportunity to do so.

In the same way that you can be a vector in transmitting Corona, you can also give false information credibility and traction by sending it on. In this time of Corona, in the same way you are staying at home in a duty to #FlattenTheCurve of the virus, you also need to play a role in breaking the chain of viral fake news.

- Wiener is a specialist crime reporter and columnist for News24.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views.The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24. 

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