SA deploys hi-tech to fight COVID-19 disinformation

Simnikiwe Mzekandaba
By Simnikiwe Mzekandaba, IT in government editor
Johannesburg, 16 Apr 2020

Coronavirus (COVID-19) disinformation, or fake news as it is popularly known, has intensified the world over, sometimes hampering government efforts to get the pandemic under control.

According to Moez Chackchouk, UNESCO assistant director-general, while the rate of disinformation on social media has always been really high, it was mainly linked to political issues such as elections.

However, UNESCO, the UN agency also responsible for combating the widespread disinformation, has seen it become a global issue during this crisis.

South Africa is not immune to the situation, as seen with some government officials often having to take to social media to slam COVID-19 fake news disseminated on the popular platforms.

Stepping up

To deal with the spread of disinformation about the disease, the South African government says it has ramped up its response to fake news during the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.

The state has done this by setting up a hi-tech monitoring and evaluation platform, which it says will be able to assess complaints and reports from the media, the public and other sectors of society.

Furthermore, once fake news items or social media posts have been identified, platform owners will be notified to take down the posts. Cases will also be reported to the South African Police Service for investigation and prosecution, reads a statement.

According to the statement, the solution is a collaboration between the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies (DCDT), Government Communication and Information System, Media Monitoring Africa and the CovidComms volunteer communication network.

It is also part of the work of a special ministerial task team established by the DCDT, which includes representatives from ICASA, Film and Publications Board, ZADna, mobile phone companies and other key players in the ICT sector, including platform owners.

Acting DCDT minister Jackson Mthembu says: “We are stepping up our campaign against digital misinformation, particularly in relation to COVID-19 and related actions such as the national lockdown.

“We also need to remind South Africans that spreading fake news or disinformation about COVID-19 is a punishable offence. Arrests have already been made, and they will continue if people persist in spreading fake news.”

Complaints 411

The ministry notes complaints can be channelled through the Real 411 Web site or via a WhatsApp line on 067 966 4015.

The Real 411 was developed in conjunction with Media Monitoring Africa, to facilitate the online submission and tracking of complaints relating to misinformation encountered on social media platforms.

It became the chosen platform for the Independent Electoral Commission in its efforts to curb the scourge of false information intended to unfairly influence South African voters during the elections.

World Wide Worx MD Arthur Goldstuck believes that during the COVID-19 crisis, it is far easier than at other times to combat fake news.

This also provides clues to dealing with fake news long-term, notes Goldstuck. “The South African government has probably been the most aggressive in the world in its approach to fake news.

“It has not only addressed hoaxes and misinformation vigorously in its media briefings, but has also used state of disaster powers to outlaw the spreading of misinformation that can put people's lives in danger.”

Goldstuck says the arrest of Steven Birch, for example, for posting a video on social media claiming coronavirus testing kits were contaminated was the most powerful signal that could possibly be sent about the consequences of both creating or falling for fake news.

“By sharing such content, even if made by others, one is guilty of disseminating misinformation. In this case, it was doubly dangerous: it could both persuade people to avoid testing, thereby exposing to risk both themselves and those with whom they come into contact; and it could expose health workers to attack when they move about in communities where such news has spread.

“It is inconceivable that someone would want to create those kind of dangers, but the fact that someone has done so underlines how important the regulations are.”

He notes that once the state of disaster is lifted and the country returns to some normalcy, it will not be as easy to declare fake news a crime, but it does provide the template.

“It allows for laws that make it illegal to knowingly create and disseminate false content that puts the lives of people at risk. The wording would have to be very specific and carefully constructed to avoid impinging on free speech in general, or on satirical or parody-style content, but there should at least be a baseline of what is completely unacceptable.”

Call to action

For Goldstuck, the crisis around the proliferation of digital fake news highlights the responsibility of major social media and content-sharing platforms to act decisively against fake news.

The hoaxes and conspiracy content around the coronavirus highlight the extent to which Facebook has been reckless and irresponsible in the way it handles fake news, he emphasises.

“Even when it has had content confirmed as fake by fact-checking organisations it pays for that service, it only 'down-ranks' the content in news feeds, rather than remove it.

“This is nothing short of criminal at a time like this, and the leadership of Facebook, from the CEO down, must explain why they persist in their nonsensical view that users should decide for themselves.”

Meanwhile, the Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) has warned its members that hosting so-called ‘fake news’ Web sites is prohibited by clause 11(5) of the Disaster Management Act regulations.

As a result, it is an offence to publish any statement with the intention to deceive about COVID-19, someone's infection status or steps taken by the government to deal with the disease, highlights ISPA.

The Internet services body says the regulations specific to ICT define deceptive statements as “fake news” and place an obligation on Electronic Communications Services licensees and Internet service providers to “remove fake news related to COVID-19 from their platforms”.

Any ISPA member hosting a fake news site should act expeditiously to remove that site, stresses the organisation.

“The public can navigate to Real 411 for SA government-sanctioned information on how to report fake news. ISPA already has a mechanism in place to deal with, inter alia, the hosting of fake news by its members in the form of its existing take-down notice procedure.

“This tool provided by ISPA as a recognised industry representative body in terms of the Electronic Communications and Transactions Act 2002 enables anyone to lodge a take-down notice to request the removal of allegedly unlawful content hosted by any ISPA member.”