“Dear youth of South Africa please do not get vaccinated. The government and the media is trying to kill you with this poison called covid19. Say no to the vaccine or you will die sooner”.
This is the false information propagated by @advovolicious, an anonymous South African Twitter account with a following of 65 000.
Such prominent social media groups and users, some with tens of thousands of followers, claim they are spreading awareness but what they are really doing is irreparably harming those gullible enough to believe these fallacies.
While the Twitter post has little engagement in comparison to the account’s following, the impact of the post’s visibility is undeniable. It also mirrors the greater global problem of vaccine misinformation and disinformation.
South African media, health bodies and fact-checking groups have been battling waves of fake news as people turn to alternative information sources. False information is also being spread in other countries and many of these messages resonate because they channel messages using closed Facebook groups, Whatsapp chain messages and Twitter influencers which are now breeding grounds for spreading disinformation.
Fact-checkers and health bodies work in a highly contested environment where internet penetration is rampant, said Sergio Cecchini, World Health Organization (WHO) coordinator of Africa Infodemic Response Alliance (AIRA).
“COVID-19 misinformation [has been declared] an ‘infodemic’ because of the magnitude of information circulating on digital platforms,” he told frayintermedia.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has ,warned that with growing digitisation, information can spread more rapidly.
“This can help to more quickly fill information voids but can also amplify harmful messages,” the organisation said.
A ,study by the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America shows that in countries where experiments were conducted, fact-checking was an effective tool to combat misinformation. Fact checks were found to significantly reduce belief in false claims. One of those countries is South Africa.
Africa Check researcher Keegan Leech said projects such as #KnowTheFactsGetTheVax led by ,Africa Check have shown that countering false claims by highlighting fact-based important aspects has been effective.
“Responding to misinformation is often less effective than pre-empting it. So as well as debunking misinformation, we have several projects aimed at publishing and spreading reliable, accurate information – something which is often trendily referred to as ‘pre-bunking’,” he said.
As a result, the media have an important role to play in sharing reliable information that people can turn to, Leech said.
“Accurate and responsible reporting are a vital first step. Reporting on false claims about COVID-19 vaccines without also clearly explaining why they are false can lend them more legitimacy than they would have otherwise,” he said.
Cecchini emphasised the critical role that media networks play in the fight against disinformation, arguing that at the community level, community journalists have an important role to play in engaging communities with reliable tailor-made information on COVID-19 myths and disinformation.
“Community journalists should be in the frontline of networks fighting misinformation in the debunking of misinformation as they are our key to contact with sub-cultural level dialogue and sentiments and so they play a crucial role in demystifying or confirming which is important,” said Cecchini.
Vaccine misinformation has been a major barrier to vaccine uptake across the globe. Africa has had false messaging and conspiracy theories discourage the public on social media channels, trickling down to community dialogue where word of mouth can not be simply removed like a misleading tweet.
Twitter is influencing news cycles and has exploitable features like it’s trending algorithm which has been central to agenda-driven operations. There are several cases where people with a large social media following influencers are actually approached to disseminate agenda-driven messages on their platforms.
Mirko Drotschmann, a German YouTuber and journalist, ,told BBC News that an influencer marketing agency called Fazze offered to pay him to promote what it said was leaked information that suggested the death rate among people who had the Pfizer vaccine was almost three times that of the AstraZeneca jab.
More recently in Kenya, interviews with influencers involved in #AnarchistJudges campaigns revealed a shadowy industry of social media influencers for political hire ,reported Wired Magazine.
Wired, a monthly American magazine that focuses on how emerging technologies affect culture, the economy and politics, found that members of civil society in Kenya and journalists alike have increasingly come under disinformation attacks that seek to silence them, muddy their reputations and stifle their reach.
Exploiting gullible Twitter users
During Uganda’s election earlier this year, political actors were exploiting Twitter features like trends, its engagement mechanics and account creation to try to control political narratives by crowding the conversation with disinformation and harassing dissenting voices wrote Wired Magazine.
Fighting misinformation and strengthening South Africa’s population’s confidence in vaccines grows more pressing as COVID-19 infection rates prolong with recurring cycles of lockdown and reopening. In the fight against COVID-19, the spread of misinformation about both COVID-19 and the vaccine threatens millions of lives.
During question time in South Africa’s parliament recently, President Cyril Ramaphosa condemned those telling people not to receive the COVID-19 jab, stressing that more needed to be done to educate people and fight vaccine hesitancy.
“Those who refuse to be vaccinated are increasing the risks for all of us, not only for further resurgence of infections but of prolonged economic hardship and lack of recovery,” Ramaphosa said.
While vaccination rates are peaking in South Africa, like the rest of the continent, it is still woefully behind the rest of the world’s vaccination rate, due, in large part to vaccine inequality and vaccine hesitancy.
Cecchini said a lesson learnt is that groups need to realise a system of misinformation and disinformation management for future crises.
“To counter the challenges of misinformation, it is a key to prioritise systems to combat disinformation at micro level through diversifying monitoring channels and community-based interaction,” he said.
He added that disinformation across regions is unique.
“The moral of the issue is how social misformation works and finding tools to understand how it works to detect and debunk it, “he added.