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Who is responsible for stopping #FakeNews about Covid-19?

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Who is responsible for stopping #FakeNews about Covid-19?

Last week, the South African government took a hard-line against the perpetuation of #FakeNews relating to the outbreak of Covid-19.  An offence of this nature carries a fine or six months in prison – or both. This may seem extreme to some, but the reality is that in a world under siege by Coronavirus, #Fakenews is not just irresponsible, it is a very real threat to public health.

Earlier this week, a Facebook account purportedly belonging to President Cyril Ramaphosa, told South Africans to stay indoors at 10:00am as helicopters would be spraying anti-Coronavirus chemicals across the country. 8,000 gullible social media users spread that news onwards!

Equally inappropriate, in September last year when the wave of xenophobic attacks in South Africa spread over the news, social media was abuzz with additional pieces of footage reporting on the attacks. Yet, an analysis of many of the video’s posted showed that they were misinformation. An example is footage of a burning building with people jumping or falling off that was shared on WhatsApp – it was actually a clip from the city of Surat in Western India.

Going beyond #FakeNews to #DeepFake
#FakeNews, the deliberate disinformation that is published on social media, has far reaching consequences for those implicated. #FakeNews manipulates opinions and alters the trajectory of people, organisations and countries to meet the objectives of those creating the news. This is especially dangerous if the intent is malicious.  As we have seen in the last few years, #FakeNews has the ability to spread panic, ignite ethnic violence, skew election outcomes, ruin an organisation’s reputation or end a person’s career. And now, an even larger threat has been created: #DeepFake.

If #FakeNews is an assault rifle on the truth, then #DeepFake is a nuclear weapon. Artificial intelligence has created the opportunity for image and audio to be synthesised to alter video content, often within seconds. This is best illustrated by a video that artist Bill Posters created of Mark Zuckerberg saying, “whoever controls the data, controls the future”. Zuckerberg never said this. With fears about Covid-19 abounding and a number of charlatans using the panic to their advantage by offering cures, charms and protections – or just spreading misinformation to drive sales of a particular product – #FakeNews and #DeepFake are becoming ever more prevalent.

Who decides what circulates on social media?
In October 2019, the inaugural Conference for Truth and Trust Online organised by industry leaders such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Amazon and Microsoft discussed the increased role that fact checking needs to take, and who is responsible. One of the attendees, Africa Check, discussed how social dynamics affect the spread of fake information. According to Lee Mwiti, Africa Check’s chief editor, we need to understand how information is shared in order to address #FakeNews effectively. He noted that because our society is based on community, information shared within these circles is deemed reliable – even if the initial originating source is not verified.

It’s not just who shares the information, but also the type of subjects that gain traction. As an example, Mwiti spoke about healthcare in Africa. He said that because healthcare is not available to all, misinformation on home cures as an affordable alternative to treat HIV/Aids and cancer, are widely shared and gain traction. Now add the Covid-19 outbreak to this equation and consider the impact in terms of transmission risk, containment mitigation and potential loss of life – it’s staggering!

Whack-A-Mole on truth
Interest in the virus has taken off on social media over the last two weeks. According to the news site Axios, interactions on coronavirus stories since 20th February have increased seven-fold whilst Google searches have increased eight-fold.  So, who is responsible for ridding the world of #FakeNews and #DeepFake? The short answer is everyone. Stopping the spread of untruths is like a game of Whack-A-Mole. As one piece of news is eliminated, then another pops up.

Many organisations are addressing this campaign of misinformation as a threat to traditional freedom of speech. Newsrooms from reputable media houses use fact checking as part of the editorial process. And even social media stalwarts like Google, Facebook and Twitter are taking a hard stance against sites that peddle #FakeNews. For example, when it comes to Coronavirus, Facebook has confirmed it is banning all ads which promise to cure, prevent or otherwise incite panic around the virus. It has also banned adverts and commercial listings related to face masks due to, amongst other reasons, price gouging.  Instagram has followed suit and is also included links to the WHO or local health authorities whenever someone taps on a related hashtag.

But, while it’s vital that news media organisations and social media platforms address this phenomenon, citizen journalists also have an invaluable role to play in how news is consumed and shared too. With organisations such as AfricaCheck.org, Snopes.com and TruthOrFiction.com its never been easier for them to check the legitimacy of what they are reading.

The internet provides unlimited scope for anyone to publish their views – or share those of others.  With the global Covid-19 pandemic already a #RealNews crisis, people must all take responsibility for containing the spread of any #FakeNews about it.  In the fight for factual accuracy, it’s time for everyone to be accountable by actively choosing to engage with content responsibly and not spread misinformation that seeds further panic.

While the creation and distribution of #FakeNews and #DeepFake will not be extinguished any time soon, when consumers of information are more critical of the content with which they are presented, the potentially damaging effects of #FakeNews can be diminished.

Six signs you’re reading #FakeNews

  1. Strange source. Check that the source of the story is a recognised news platform. If it sounds like an established source but has a strange end to the URL (internet address) you need to look closer. If the address ends with .infonet .offer .com- .xyz or .com.co be wary.
  2. You can only access it via a link or post. Go directly to the alleged publication’s website and see if you can find it there.
  3. No one else is covering it. Check on what other platforms are reporting the story. If this one is the only source of the information, it is unlikely to be true.
  4. The images are ‘off’. Examine for strange shadows, note styles of clothing or people who seem out of place. Check with a Google Reverse Image Search if you want to be certain.
  5. The story seems extraordinary. If the story sounds too incredible to be true, it could be.  Take a closer look, examine the evidence laid out in the copy and use your common sense.
  6. Content and headline mismatch. If the headline is made up of eye-catching, emotive statements that don’t match the story content, you are probably reading #FakeNews.

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