The COVID-19 infodemic: A year later and fake news is still spreading

COVID-19-related conspiracy theories about 5G network towers, contaminated test kits, immune boosters and vaccine hesitancy are undermining trust and fuelling unnecessary panic.

This handout illustration image obtained February 27, 2020 courtesy of the National Institutes of Health taken with a scanning electron microscope shows SARS-CoV-2 (round blue objects) emerging from the surface of cells cultured in the lab, SARS-CoV-2, also known as 2019-nCoV, is the virus that causes COVID-19, the virus shown was isolated from a patient in the US. Picture: AFP.

CAPE TOWN - More than one year into the pandemic and pockets of fake news and disinformation continue to hamper efforts to effectively deal with COVID-19.

From conspiracy theories about 5G network towers, contaminated test kits, immune boosters and vaccine hesitancy, South Africa has not been spared.

As Eyewitness News reports, these are undermining trust and fuelling unnecessary panic.

Around the world, fake news and disinformation has continued to do the rounds - even from people of influence.

Organisations such as Media Monitoring Africa and the Real411 have been used to mitigate the spread of disinformation.

Director William Bird said that some of the key trends over the last year included unproven theories, such as that COVID-19 didn’t really exist and that certain vitamins could prevent the disease.

Bird said that social media was mostly used as a tool to spread these falsehoods.

“Some of the other kinds of things that we’ve seen are the classic conspiracy theories about COVID-19. That it’s all invented by a western evil force and sometimes that might be an evil Chinese force and sometimes it might be an ‘evil Bill Gates’.”

Bird said that the spreading of fake news about COVID-19 was another pandemic in its own right.

“That is what the World Health Organization said, they called it an infodemic, and you know it’s this idea that you can spread all these rumors which really hamper efforts by government and scientists and doctors to try and mitigate the crisis we’re in.”

Bird urged people to report any fake news to the Real411 – a fake news and disinformation detection platform - to help eliminate disinformation and further damage.

The Real 411 said it had recorded 1,300 complaints of fake news over the last year - and more than 900 of these were COVID-19- related.

WATCH: COVID-19 misinformation: How the spread of fake news caused an infodemic

SPREADING OF FAKE COVID NEWS A CRIME

As per government regulations, anyone that creates or spreads fake news about the coronavirus is liable for prosecution.

Experts agreed that the spread of false information posed a threat to South Africa.

In 2020, Cape Town resident Stephen Birch was charged with breaching the National Disaster Act and defying lockdown regulations.

He had posted a video claiming that medical swabs used during community screenings were contaminated with the coronavirus.

That case is still before the courts and is just one of hundreds of people peddling lies about COVID-19 - especially now with the rollout of vaccines.

“Of those 1,300, about 929 were specifically about mis- and disinformation. And of those, the overwhelming majority - about 90% - were about COVID-19,” Bird explained.

Wits professor of vaccinology, Shabir Madhi, said that South Africa must act fast to curb this trend.

“Unless we get on top of this false narrative around what COVID vaccines are and are not, we are going to be in a very dangerous situation in that people will remain unprotected if they fall for the fake news.”

OVERBURDENED POLICE SERVICE

Cyber security experts are pleading that more effort be put into clamping down on fake news related to COVID-19.

Craig Pederson said that the South African Police Service had the capacity and technology to clamp down on fake news.

But as he explained, the police service was already overburdened with so many other crime-fighting initiatives.

“The police are lagging behind in investigations in all forms of cybercrime, and fake news is just really one example of that.”

Pederson said that in the last year there had been an increase in scammers trying to sell fake COVID-19 tests.

He urged people to verify any videos and COVID-19-related stories that pop up, especially on social media.

“The key here is that you really have to search the provenance and the credibility of the author of the video or the article that you’re reading and see that they are credible in their own right.”

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