Social media experts agree that creating and sharing false information is criminal and offenders should be prosecuted.
Fake news, hoaxes and conspiracy theories have been ubiquitous since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. People have either, in their ignorance, unwittingly shared false information on their social media pages or via WhatsApp, while others have actively created fake news to serve various malicious objectives.
On Monday, a viral message that Covid-19 testing swabs were infected and used to spread the virus was debunked by the Eastern Cape Health Department.
In the video, which has been widely distributed on social media, a man calls on South Africans to refuse Covid-19 testing.
With an earbud stuck up his nose, he claims he is giving South Africans “the most important message you will ever hear in your entire life”.
He then claims that the South African government will send 10,000 workers door to door, with the police, to test for Covid-19.
“Do not under any circumstances allow them to test you. There’s a possibility that the swabs are contaminated with Covid-19.”
The man then claims that, globally, the swabs are used to “spread the virus”, without providing any evidence to support his claim.
The DA has since pressed charges against the man, saying these criminal charges are “meant to send a strong message to South Africans that the spreading of fake news will not be tolerated”.
“Spreading fake news, as this person has done, is against the Covid-19 Disaster Management Regulation 11(5) which prohibits and criminalises the spread of fake news pertaining to efforts of combating this pandemic. The regulations are clear that transgressors can be jailed for up to six months,” the party said.
William Bird, director of Media Monitoring Africa, said there had been a significant spike in fake news and conspiracy theories since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus.
“This kind of thing is increasing. That specific complaint [about the contaminated swabs] was submitted to us several times. There are also several illegitimate WhatsApp voice notes being distributed. People are sending them around in the hope that they sound a whole lot more compelling [than they are] or that they connect with people – it’s a similar thing with videos.
“I mean, I don’t know what that guy [in the swab video] was thinking he was going to achieve. The levels of disinformation that we have seen are really worrying.”
Bird said fake messages were in the past predominantly shared on open platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, which made it easier to control, but that there has been a predominant shift to WhatsApp, where it is much harder to track or monitor.
“Some people make statements that are just fundamentally misinformed because they haven’t applied their brains or logic, so there is some level of ignorance. But some of them are deliberately seeking to deceive people and instil fear or get people to distrust things.”
Social media lawyer Emma Sadleir said that, as much as we are facing a health epidemic, we are also facing a fake news epidemic.
“Whenever emotions are heightened, it creates a breeding ground for fake news.”
In some cases, these spreaders of fake news seek to profit from it, while others are using it for political gain, particularly when they have a narrative, Sadleir said.
“There are activists out there, it’s the same thing as people setting fires. Some of these people are trying to stir up emotions; in other cases, it’s just sheer stupidity.
“The same people who buy into conspiracy theories are the best breeding ground [for sharing fake news].”
Referring to the man who posted the testing swab video, Sadleir said his Facebook page was filled with various conspiracy theories and misinformation.
“I think when it comes to the regulations of the Disaster Management Act, and the intention to deceive, we have to read in there dolus eventualis – where there is recklessness with regards to the truth, you’ve made that requirement of intention to deceive, which is a criminal offence that should come with a prison sentence or a fine. I believe that they are going to make a test case out of this guy.”
Sadleir warned people not to share information unless they are 100% sure that the source is credible, and the information has been verified.
Bird encouraged people to report fake news to real411.org.
“It gets reviewed by three experts, and then again by a lawyer, and then action can be taken.”
National police spokesperson Brigadier Vish Naidoo was in a meeting and could not be reached for comment.
However, Naidoo previously said: “People mustn’t think that they can post these videos and post fake news and think they can get away with it. We have the capacity and capability of tracing them. If they want to do the crime, they must be prepared to do the time.”