The world today is characterised by easier access to information worldwide, thanks to communication and technological developments. Traditional forms of media such as television now compete with internet sources in providing information and news. This unprecedented access to information has raised concerns about the harmful consequences of an abundance of information and terms such as “fake news”, “misinformation” and “news literacy” have gained prominence.
The current COVID-19 pandemic which has sparked international concern has shed light on these challenges of misinformation and fake news. The term “misinformation” refers to false or inaccurate information. The problem was highlighted by the Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Dr Tedros Adhanom, at a security conference in Munich on 2 February where he stated that the world was not just facing an epidemic but was also facing an “infodemic”. This is a term used to describe the overabundance of information available to the public, making it difficult to distinguish between fake and valid information. He added that fake news and misinformation was a cause for concern as it spreads faster than the coronavirus.
“The world today is characterised by easier access to information worldwide…“
On 19 March, the monitors for freedom of expression and freedom of the media for the United Nations, the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights, and the Representative on Freedom of the Media of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe released a joint statement in which they recognised that the potential of false information can lead to “health concerns, panic and disorder”. In the past, the spread of misinformation and fake news has had various consequences around the world, ranging from hate speech and prejudiced sentiments to bigger impacts such as mob violence, like those fuelled by fake child abduction rumours circulated online in India in 2018.
The role of social media
A recent study titled the COVID-19 Social Media Infodemic at Cornell University showed that social media plays a significant role in spreading information and rumours that are not always true, and this information plays a significant part in influencing debates on public issues, especially those that are highly controversial. The study also reveals that the spread of misinformation is amplified by the tendency of individuals to seek out information that supports their arguments while filtering out information that contradicts their viewpoints or sentiments. In 2019, a Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute described South Africans as “some of the heaviest users of social media and messaging in the world” and that about 70% of South Africans, one of the highest rates in the world, admitted that they struggled to distinguish fact from fictional information.
The prevalence of misinformation during this pandemic has led major social media platforms like Facebook to partner with global health organisations such as WHO in addressing the mass spreading of inaccurate information. Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, announced that through such collaborations, the platform would be removing false claims flagged by health organisations. The South African government also acted to tackle this “infodemic” by publishing a regulation according to the Disaster Management Act of 2002 which criminalised the intentional spread of misinformation pertaining to COVID-19. The regulation states that those found guilty of intentionally spreading false information may be fined or imprisoned for a period of up to six months.
“…false information can lead to ‘health concerns, panic and disorder’“
A survey by Pew Research in 2016 showed that the proportion of South Africans who received their news via social media at least more than once a month were about 48%. The survey also showed that 35% of South Africans have shared political news which they later discovered was in fact false. Another publication by the organisation in February this year stated that, while lower education levels decrease a person’s ability to discern facts from fictional information, biases can play a significant role in determining the credibility of information. People tend to share information to which they are emotionally attached. Individuals are more likely to believe information when it is repeated and when it aligns with their attitudes and world-views.
What can we do to navigate through this “infodemic”?
In order to address the problem of misinformation, the practice of fact-checking has gained prominence, with a number of fact-checking organisations being established over the years. One of the prominent organisations dedicated to verifying the validity of information is Africa’s first independent fact-checking organisation, Africa Check. The non-profit organisation works to verify the accuracy of information widely shared in the media such as, viral WhatsApp messages and claims made by politicians such as statistics used in the State of the Nation Address. The organisation also gives guidelines on necessary skills like tracing the origins of photos through reverse image searching. Most recently, Africa Check is helping individuals to navigate through the COVID-19 “infodemic” by verifying the accuracy of viral information pertaining to the coronavirus.
“…the proportion of South Africans who received their news via social media at least more than once a month were about 48%“
With a few guidelines, individuals can improve their navigation through an “infodemic” such as the one regarding COVID-19. According to Africa Check, it is important to double-check the accuracy of information received via social media before sharing it with others. The public must check the origin of the information and ensure that the source of the claim made can be traced to a credible source. It is also advisable to be sceptical of information or messages that elicit emotional reactions such as shock, as fake messages sometimes try to manipulate people’s fears and prejudices.
It is also recommended to use fact-checking sites such as AfricaCheck.org or https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/. In addition to that, another interesting way of ensuring accurate information is by joining the What’s Crap on WhatsApp? programme which is an initiative by Africa Check, Volume and the International Fact-Checking Network. The show can be accessed on https://www.whatscrap.africa/ for instructions to access the WhatsApp Show.
Visual: Jonathan Oladeji