“Now that there’s fear and a lack of knowledge, It’s the perfect environment for misinformation to spread”

The South African government has taken the unprecedented step of criminalising mis- and disinformation in light of the covid-19 pandemic. The announcement of the measure on Wednesday, March 18, as part of a suite of regulations implemented in line with the Disaster Management Act has not been without its critics but it is clear that the spread of mis- and disinformation is a serious problem for the country.

“Now that there’s fear and a lack of knowledge, It’s the perfect environment for misinformation to spread,” says William Bird, the director of Media Monitoring Africa (MMA).

The new regulation announced in line with the Disaster Management Act includes a potential fine or six months imprisonment. However, this strictly applies to Covid-19-related information and requires clear evidence of an intent to deceive.

“False claims about Covid-19 have encouraged people to avoid being tested and treated,” says AfricaCheck researcher, Keegan Leech. Leech says that, “False information may cause people to further spread the disease.”

David Lydall is a volunteer with Covid Comms, a network of volunteers working alongside the South African government to dissiminate accurate Covid-19 information.  Lydall says that, “False information could result in people not complying with lockdown restrictions as a result of being misinformed.”

The theory of the dangers of 5G technology is an example of how false information can have dangerous consequences. The mis-information around 5G has linked the technology to the spread of radiation and diseases like covid-19.

Bird explains that theories like the 5G one are the most important to contain. He says, “It’s believable to a degree because we know cellular masts do have a health impact. Therefore, making it more powerful and more dangerous.”

Leech says, “This conspiracy theory has already been linked to cases of suspected arson and vandalism against cellphone towers in Britain. Technicians in the country have also reported being harassed while fixing or installing mobile communications technology.”

Local Facebook page “Stop 5G South Africa” includes posts by members calling for the destruction of 5G masts. Vernon Baumann, a member of the group, shared an article about the vandalisation of 5G towers captioned, “We need to bring down these towers.”

The conspiracy theorists also express their distrust in mainstream media. They make reference to one specific video of an American physician, Dr Rashid Buttar, claiming that the viral spread of Covid-19 is a conspiracy theory supported by the mainstream media.

You can report fake news through the Real411 website: www.real411.org run by the MMA or the Whatsapp line: 067 966 4015. You can also contact Africacheck by clicking here. 

FEATURED IMAGE:  The importance of fact-checking information is at an all-time-high amid the Covid-19 outbreak. Photo: Catia De Castro