Clicks ’n Tricks: Killing the virus of fake news #CoronavirusSA

Wed, 27/05/2020 - 14:51

These dark cloudy days of COVID-19 bring memories of my grandmother flooding back — and one glimmer of silver that’s giving me hope is that we may be close to finding a vaccine for the scourge that is fake news.

Each time I found myself in deep trouble as a young schoolboy, my gran — a redoubtable lady who lived through two world wars — used to tell me that it was the darkest of clouds that held the most silver in their linings. Although her words rarely shielded me from the headmaster’s cane, they helped me shift focus from my immediate woes and encouraged me to look to the opportunities that would emerge once the heavy shadow cast by my most-recent indiscretion had passed.

Calling out the fakes

Yes, there’s been a surge of fake news in recent months, but there’s also been a hardening of our attitudes to it and a pivotal shift in who we turn to for our news.

Most of us will have received a WhatsApp recording from a friendly neighbour keen to share the news that there’s looting going down in Sandton or from the ‘chief of surgery’ saying that corona’s a hoax. Each time one of these messages lands in my local street group, it’s quickly drowned out by a chorus of responses denouncing it as “FAKE NEWS” which often prompts the initiator to issue an apology. It’s a microcosm, I know, but it’s encouraging. I suspect it’s happening elsewhere, too.

AfricaCheck has reported a surge in the number of stories it’s being asked to fact-check, with volumes more than doubling since the start of March 2020. Over the same period, its website traffic has grown fivefold, so it’s clear many of us are interested in separating fact from fiction.

Idiots and denialists

Our calling out of fake news is driven in part by the government, which were quick to point out that Section 27 (2) of the Disaster Management Act makes the spreading of false information during the current pandemic a punishable offence. We’ve already seen a swathe of arrests and cautions being issued to idiots, such as the denialist who claimed that test kits were contaminated.

Indeed, according to a report on IOL, it’s measures such as these that have seen South Africa rank second in the world for reliable COVID-19 news.

While our own law is a bit vague on punishment (it says people convicted will be liable to a fine or imprisonment for a period not exceeding six months, or both), elsewhere legislators are being more specific. The UAE, for example, will levy a 20 000 dirham fine (just over R100 000) on anyone sharing information about coronavirus that contradicts official statements.

It’s possible that fear of the law’s long arm will encourage even the most attention-seeking of us to think twice before we hit the ‘forward’ and ‘share’ buttons.

Social responds

The social media behemoths also need to step forward, too, and it seems they might be doing just that.

WhatsApp has attempted to do its part to flatten the curve. While the app’s end-to-end encryption prevents it from reading messages to determine whether we’re spreading fiction, it’s updated its settings to prevent posts that have already been widely circulated from being shared with more than one person at a time.

Even Facebook has acted, albeit belatedly and in a typically defensive manner. On 16 April, it announced that users who read, watch or share false coronavirus information will be shown a popup alert urging them to visit the World Health Organisation (WHO) website. It’d be nice if it also made a donation to the said organisation each time it allows its platform to be used to share garbage….

According to the BBC, Facebook’s changes were prompted by a study from Avaaz, a crowdfunded activist group which pointed out that it was taking the company up to 22 days to issue warning labels on COVID-19 falsehoods, even when people had reported the content as being harmful.

News-consumption changing

Perhaps, though, the most-tangible sign that we’re waking up to the dangers of relying on social media for news comes from a study by Ofcom, the UK’s communications regulator. It’s commissioned a series of reports running over three months to find out how people are getting news about the pandemic.

The first week’s data found that more than 80% of respondents were turning to the BBC for information. While nearly half admitted they accessed some news on social media, just 5% said that social was their most-important news source. This contrasts with a near-identical Ofcom survey last year that reported sharp growth in social-media news consumption (and, more worryingly, in the audience’s belief of its veracity), coupled to a year-on-year decline in the use of TV, radio and print media as primary news sources.

Doubtless, my gran, who thought that mobile phones and computers were confounded things that polluted minds, would be happy to hear that we’re gathering our news from credible publishers. Perhaps there’s really some silver in these dark clouds hovering overhead.

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