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Analysis shows SA govt effective in fake news war

Read time 4min 10sec

The South African government is making strides in the fight against fake news, as coronavirus (COVID-19)-related theories spread almost as fast as the pandemic, across social media platforms.

This is one of the preliminary findings of a social media analysis study conducted by the Centre for Analytics and Behaviour Change (CABC),a non-profit organisation based at the University of Cape Town's Graduate School of Business.

The study, based on advanced social media analytics, seeks to find answers to critical questions such as: Is SA fighting the virus as a strong nation bound together by adversity? How are South Africans responding to misinformation and the lockdown regulations on social media? Is thepandemic magnifying long-standing disparities in society that threaten our social cohesion?

According to the research, South Africa as nation has responded effectively to the spread of false information, largely due to government’s crackdown on false news.

In SA, anyone that creates or spreads fake news about the novel COVID-19 is liable for prosecution.

“The South African government has criminalised the passing on of fake content and has harnessed multiple governmental and civil society bodies to deal with it,” says Dee Vos,head of the research team at CABC.

“As a result, we see this information dropping into social media – either from outside the country or within, and not spreading very far. This is largely because people are reluctant to pass it on.”

Last month, theDepartment of Communications and Digital Technologies, in collaboration with the Government Communication and Information System and Media Monitoring Africa, introduced a hi-tech monitoring and evaluation process that has been put in place to assess complaints and reports from the media, the public and other sectors of society, with the ability to take down fake news items on a range of platforms and submit cases to the South African Police Services for investigation and prosecution.

Once fake news items or social media posts have been identified, platform owners are notified to bring down the posts.

Earlier this month, the SAPS arrested a 55-year-old male suspect who circulated a misleading video clip on COVID-19 test kits. The suspect appeared before court in the Western Cape and has been charged in terms of the Disaster Management Act Regulation.

Meanwhile, Metro FM radio host and choreographer Somizi Mhlongo was granted R1 500 bail after being charged with spreading fake news.

“Government’s messaging has been clear, they have responded with clarity in all instances of mis- and disinformation. It’s really important to realise that while some ‘fake news’ is benign, when it is designed to undermine healthcare efforts or lockdown protocols, it can actually cost people their lives,” addsVos.

Social media platforms YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and TikTok have also stepped up efforts to deal with fake news by reducing the amount of content showing fake theories about the links between 5G and the coronavirus pandemic.

The CABC says it uses a platform called Brandwatch which has access to over 80 million sources and publicly available data from blogs, news sites, forums, videos, reviews, images and social networks, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Reddit.

The data-driven research has three main strands – reporting on social media conversations, where data is analysed to identify protagonists and antagonists in conversations, and analysing content creation and distribution.

Researchers identify the day's trending COVID-19-related topics and measure the number of people who actively engaged in the issue. The research team say they have identified several instances of posts or comments which are factually incorrect, and can cause harm and disinformation designed to create fear, panic or chaos.

“While government’s efforts haven’t stopped the grand conspiracy theories around 5G and Microsoft founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates in particular – there is evidence that both of these conspiracies have been fostered by actors taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis,” according to Vos.

Other findings of the report include how the COVID-19 crisis is widening the existing inequality cracks in South African society and the reality of the scourge of gender-based violence (GBV) in SA.

“We are seeing rising signs of hunger and frustration expressed on social media, which is likely to result in various forms of collective violence. We have also seen a rise in mentions of gender-based violence as women are confined with perpetrators of GBV and they’re not able to leave the house,” according to the CABC.

The report findings are available to the public at cabc.org.za.

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