/ 22 January 2021

Disinformation harms health and democracy

Safrica Health Virus Vaccine
Fertile ground: Weird Covid and 5G theories have also taken hold in South Africa, perhaps not a surprise given that some leaders have expressed anti-vax opinions, and our history of Aids denialism. Here demonstrators are protesting a coronavirus vaccine trial at the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. (Marco Longari/AFP)

Within minutes, it was clear that things were even worse than I had thought.

I was listening in while waiting to be interviewed on radio station SAfm on the topic of conspiracy theories. What I heard left me in no doubt that South Africans face an unprecedented deluge of misinformation and disinformation.

We need an urgent response to hold back these waters. The stakes are incredibly high.

Mass digital communications provide many benefits and efficiencies, but social media platforms are also perfect for spreading wild conspiracy theories, a classic element of disinformation. And right here on live national radio, a raft of conspiracies was being floated out in all their fantastically fabricated detail.

At the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change, a University of Cape Town-based nonprofit organisation that tracks online narrative manipulation, we share the fear that disinformation is dangerous to democracy. 

As the programme unfolded, I heard exactly how deadly disinformation can become. 

The programme began with a call from a listener who wanted to remain anonymous. He was convinced that Covid-19 stood for “Certificate Of Verification ID-AI”, and painstakingly explained that AI, the abbreviation for artificial intelligence, were letters number 1 and 9 in the alphabet.

Okay, I’ve heard this one many times and we can dispel it easily, I thought, still listening in patiently.

The caller’s other convictions included the theory that the 5G cellular network would be used to “control” people who were vaccinated against the virus, and that this was all a grand plan launched in 1937 by a so-called “new world order” to control people.

The caller was adamant: “It’s all written down in black and white.”

He was so suspicious of the mysterious new world order that he had switched off or disabled some apps on his phone, fearing they would be used against him.

Most of these ridiculous claims have been doing the social media rounds for a while now, and have been repeatedly and thoroughly debunked as false, baseless and scientifically impossible.

But what the caller said next left me cold. 

Asked whether he would take the vaccine against the virus, he replied calmly: “No, I won’t take the vaccine, and my family won’t, and my children won’t. On this one they have no choice; my kids are not taking it.”

At that point, the floodgates opened. Even the host was surprised at the hundreds of calls, voice notes and tweets.

Some of it was pure science fiction, such as the idea that every person on earth will soon be “uploaded” and controlled through a global vaccination programme … 

When my turn to speak finally came, I tried to hit the topic on the head, as hard as I could.

I expressed deep concern about vaccine hesitancy linked to unfounded conspiracy theories, after acknowledging that there were also some legitimate concerns based on available scientific data.

I explained that Donald Trump and his “Maga army”, along with foreign actors bent on undermining democracies, have brought the weirdest and wildest conspiracy theories into the mainstream, and that this has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

I pointed out that every single point the anonymous caller made was untrue, although each had emerged from a slight kernel of truth that was exploited to create bizarre conspiracies.

I thought I had made a strong case. But many listeners were not convinced.

The interviewer said she was fielding calls and messages from hundreds of people telling me that I just didn’t get it. She was surprised at the “evidence” listeners were sending in to support the conspiracies: data, videos and other information obtained mostly from social media posts.

“People believe this ‘evidence’,” she remarked, in utter disbelief.

Yes, I said. It’s murky because so many people believe this type of disinformation. There’s fabricated evidence all over social media to justify these types of conspiracies.

Trump’s tactics have undermined the concept of journalistic truth. The truth is consistently being bombarded from different angles. The intention is to make it difficult to tell the truth, and this intention is driven by powerful political forces.

I pointed out that when Trump accused the mainstream media of telling lies, it undermined the media in general.

Worldwide resistance: Anti-lockdown activists in Dublin, Ireland, protest during that country’s level five lockdown against what they see as impending forced vaccinations. (Artur Widak/NurPhoto) On Saturday, November 28, 2020, in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto)

Right on cue, these comments came pouring in from listeners: the media is controlled; the media are liars serving political masters; the media is paid to tell the public nonsense.

The announcer sighed: “I have just received a message that this station is part of the new world order and we are pushing an agenda.”

Then the water was muddied even further.

A caller from Polokwane complained that Christians who believed in the power of their God to heal them were not being given the room to refuse vaccinations.

Despite the announcer confirming that vaccination would not be compulsory for anyone, the caller went on to describe vaccinations as “the mark” referred to in the Bible. He mentioned an interview in which Bill Gates had said, quite correctly, that the world cannot return to normality until everyone was vaccinated.

But this was interpreted as: “It’s the mark we are forced to wear. Without vaccination you cannot travel; you cannot do business. It’s spoken about in the Bible. I will not take the vaccination. I trust God. I’m not talking about conspiracy theories, I’m talking about my beliefs.”

“I don’t believe much in what scientists are saying, I believe in what God is saying,” the caller concluded.

It was now clear that, between the disinformation created by flourishing conspiracy theories and the misinformation emerging from belief systems, truth seekers have a huge mountain to climb. 

In the context of the imminent vaccination rollout to stem Covid-19, South Africa is at a dangerous juncture. People are dying in their tens of thousands. About 70% of our population has to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. But mis- and disinformation is putting the national vaccination strategy at grave risk.

The Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change is analysing how misinformation and other forms of narrative manipulation on social media are influencing decisions people are making about vaccinations.

Most conspiracy theories, and other forms of disinformation, have a highly emotive content: they try to work up an emotional response from people.

Another sign is that there is often a kernel of truth that has been distorted and expanded into a grand conspiracy. For example, there were already health concerns and established conspiracy theories around the 5G network before Covid-19 started. Then the pandemic started, and the conspiracy theory evolved. 

Now the vaccine is here and the conspiracy has become even more complex and fantastical — yet it is perfectly believable and credible to some people.

Known information is often undermined in this way to create disinformation, and the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change was founded to find, report on and respond to this type of narrative manipulation.

The centre is working towards analysing and countering vaccination hesitancy, which has become a huge challenge for our country if we are to overcome the Covid crisis. We need to get as many people as possible to take the vaccine if we are to attain herd immunity and put our masks away.

The centre has also conceptualised the Democracy 2021 project, which will look for evidence of organised interference, hate speech, incitement to violence and disinformation around this year’s elections. This is to ensure that the upcoming elections, and the democracy that underpins them, are conducted without manipulation.

On both these fronts, people should not be distracted by conspiracy theories that suck the air out of legitimate debates, and then turn devastatingly deadly, claiming the lives of citizens who could be saved.

There’s a lot of work to be done in the year ahead. The survival of our citizens, the health of our nation, and the state of our democracy is at stake.