The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Changes at the University of Cape Town (UCT) has launched a six-month project that will combat the spread of misinformation about the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) in South Africa and beyond.
"Over the next six months, the team of 26 – among them psychologists, criminologists and sustainability experts – plan to use social media analytics to track and counter the spread of fake news and polarising rhetoric about Covid-19 in South Africa and other parts of Africa," the institution said in a statement last Wednesday.
In addition, the project will monitor related incidents of social unrest and collective violence. These findings will be made public and to government in the form of daily, weekly and thematic reports.
The team will also work on a predictive model that will assist in the identification of likely hotspots of collective violence in the coming months.
"They hope to encourage healthy online dialogue by empowering and amplifying the voices of active citizens whose values align with the centre’s aims of encouraging tolerance and social cohesion," UCT added.
The project is led by associate professor Camaren Peter and Stuart Jones, who explain that the online realm is flooded with examples of fake news related to Covid-19.
"For example: on the first day of lockdown, there was a fake document that did the rounds that claimed that the government would only provide financial aid for South African businesses, which turned out to be a deliberate attempt to sow division," Peter says.
He adds that, to date, government has been doing "a good job of countering fake news", but the major issues coming to the fore during this period are issues surrounding social fractures around lockdown and the perceptions of privilege versus poverty and what that means to different economic classes in South Africa.
Jones explains that the research methodologies used in the project can identify the protagonists and antagonists participating in debates online.
"We will be identifying protagonists who are value-aligned with us, and offering to stand beside them in the work they are already doing.
"We want to amplify those voices as a way of encouraging healthy dialogue, even amongst people who may disagree," Jones said.
While the project recognises the issue of mis- and disinformation, the broader goal is to bring about healthy conversations in the online realm.
"We want to create platforms for people to organise around and methodologies that can be used for analysis.
"We also want to make this all open source and share it with similar groups around the world so that they can open centres in their own political spheres," Peter says.