Fighting the fake news epidemic

All South African citizens who stay at home to avoid spreading the Covid-19 virus are entitled to a government grant of R785 a day, a WhatsApp message announces, giving you a link to click for advice on how to claim.

Or maybe you received a WhatsApp quoting the latest infection figures, followed by the phone number of someone selling a device to ‘zap’ the virus and save your life.

The only thing spreading faster than the Corona virus is fake news, including miracle cures from scamsters capitalising on disaster, false information that could prevent someone from taking the correct precautions, or racist slurs that could incite violence.

The team at Media Monitor Africa and its director William Bird probably don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this social media madness or the fake facts published in the formal media. But they’ve taken action by relaunching their fake news detection service, the Real411, to identify and take down falsehoods that could influence people’s thinking. Real411 was originally launched to counter disinformation ahead of South Africa’s elections and it’s been repurposed to fight the Covid-19 scaremongering. Fittingly, plans for a physical press conference were scrapped and the relaunch was streamed live on Twitter, with the panellists sitting well spaced out on a stage with no audience.

It takes its name from the slang of 411 to mean genuine information, dating from dialling 411 to get the phone number of anyone listed in the US phone directory.

“Some people spread misinformation from ignorance or stupidity. Often there’s a very deliberate political motive, and some - well, I don’t want to say evil - but there are bad people who think it’s fun to cause harm,” says Bird.

The complaint-reporting system was created by Media Monitoring and Assemble, a Johannesburg-based development house. “We’re quite proud of it,” says Bird. “We did it for the elections and it was a world first, and it’s cool to know that in South Africa we can do things that so-called developed nations aren’t doing.”

The sort of reports it aims to quash are like the one that claimed only people of colour can get the virus, which may encourage others to ignore social distancing and cause widespread infections. The facts can save lives, while lies will cost lives.

Anyone can go to the Real411 website and lay a complaint against an article or post in any of the official languages. A Digital Complaints Committee comprising a legal expert, a digital expert and a media expert will review the article, and if they uphold the complaint, they can ask the online platforms to remove it, refer it to the police, the Human Rights Commission, the Equality Court or other relevant bodies, or publish a counter-narrative.

“It’s an entirely digital process so people lodge a complaint online and we get an alert and it gets reviewed according to the criteria for disinformation, incitement, hate speech or attacks on journalists,” says Bird. “There are very specific questions they have to answer according to the law, and if it’s misinformation like ‘eating beetroot cures Covid-19’ we send it to the platform like Google, Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp and say this is disinformation, please remove it.”

Real411 has a good relationship with those international organisations, and backing from the South African government, the South African National Editors’ Forum and the Human Rights Commission should encourage these social media platforms to support its decisions.

Its team members communicate via a chat channel, and they may decide to publish a counter-narrative of correct information refuting the original post. That will name the person responsible for misinformation, and if that person disagrees with the rebuttal they can appeal to the Real411, which has recruited Judge Zak Yacoob as its overall adjudicator.

While anyone can file a complaint though the Real411 website, individuals can get more involved by training as a news vigilante, surfing the social media streams to seek out falsehoods. Joining its official ‘Spotters Network,’ could be a fun way to brighten up endless days of self-isolation. First you download the RoveR app and take some tests to learn what to look for. The training uses articles that were genuinely published, although the ‘facts’ sometimes turned out to be fiction. It’s a bit like Tinder, swiping left for rubbish and right for good.

There’s one about the wife of the DA’s Mmusi Maimane filing for divorce after he had an affair with his cousin. Eish, swipe left, that’s nonsense. The story about a new drug turning Durbanites into zombies? Swipe left, another fake. The one about former police minister Fikile Mbalula posting a photo of a sexy policewoman – swipe right, that was genuine.

This digital literacy training in how to discern real from rubbish gives people a level of skill so they can become a spotter to look for more, Bird says. “It’s not just a complaints system sitting there, you actually have a group of people who actively want to look for false information. We’ll be approaching the University of the Third Age because a big area to address is older people. Our mothers and family members constantly share information so we need to teach them as well.”

While the examples used in the RoveR tests are quite amusing, fake news often causes serious harm. A new HBO documentary called After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News, highlights an attempted murder triggered by false information on the social news aggregation site Reddit. Leaked emails were distorted to create an inflammatory theory that a child abuse ring was based at a pizzeria in Washington.

The disinformation spread on Facebook and Twitter and pictures of the owner with his godchildren were used to brand him a paedophile. Callers issued death threats, then a man drove for six hours to enter the pizzeria with a gun, incited by online forums to rescue the children.
No one was hurt, but it highlighted the terrifying ability of fake news and the inflammatory fuel of Facebook and Twitter to provoke dire consequences. With the Covid-19 pandemic now gripping the world, reliable information is literally a matter of life and death.

“Disinformation destroys democracy,” Webber Wentzel’s online libel expert Dario Milo said at the Real41 relaunch. “Disinformation is basically a lie where you know what you are saying is false, and we have seen some very high profile examples about Covid-19 that were designed to look authentic but weren’t. That’s what Real411 is there to address. It takes a long time to get vindication through the courts so an initiative like this is absolutely critical because it bypasses the legal system and allows it to be dealt with quickly.”

The motive could be mischief, or it could be someone innocently saying something that is false, but both could create havoc, said Milo.

The Real411 initiative is strengthened by the new law passed under the Disaster Management Act to criminalise the publication of any statement through any medium with the intention to deceive about Covid-19, the infection status of any person, or any measures taken by the government to address it, with a fine and/or imprisonment of up to six months.

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