Fake news during the COVID 19 pandemic

When the next pandemic strikes, we’ll be fighting it on two fronts. The first is the one you immediately think about: understanding the disease, researching a cure, and inoculating the population. The second is new, and one you might not have thought much about: fighting the deluge of rumors, misinformation and flat-out lies that will appear on the internet.”

Bruce Schneier, an American writer

This article is about something which we have all seen a great deal of during the COVID-19 pandemic:  fake news.  We’ll have a closer look at what fake news is, why it’s such a large problem, how to recognize it, and what the legal implications are if you create or distribute it.

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What is fake news?

Fake news can be of 2 types:

  1. Stories that simply aren’t true, and are designed to mislead the reader to believe something false, or to buy a product, etc.
  2. Stories that have some element of truth to them, but aren’t 100% factually accurate.  An example of this type of fake news is when only a certain part of a quote is used, to change the intended meaning of what was said.  This can be done deliberately, or accidentally as a misunderstanding.

Fake news is a bad thing for a variety of reasons.  It misleads people and gives them false information, which may cause them to buy items they don’t need or that don’t work, and may even cause them to put themselves in harm’s way by promoting false or dangerous health practices.  It can cause confusion and panic and can be detrimental to public health efforts (for example, during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the spread of good information is so vital).  It can also be defamatory and can damage the reputation of the person(s) mentioned in the news, as well as be damaging to your own reputation if you publish/share something that turns out not to be true.

Why is fake news so prevalent?

This is a growing issue for a few reasons.  Social media platforms allow pretty much anyone to publish their thoughts, feelings and opinions, and for others to forward these opinions with very little effort.  A story can spread incredibly rapidly to millions of people, and many people disseminate information without first checking the accuracy of what they are publishing. 

The COVID 19 pandemic has seen massive amounts of fake news doing the rounds.  We all want to help to spread relevant and helpful information, and we are all anxious due to the many unknowns surrounding COVID 19.  This drives us to forward messages and videos sent to us.

It is completely understandable that you would want to help spread information that could help someone, but you may end up doing more harm than good if that information is false.

How do I recognize fake news?

So, how can we be sure that the news we spread is legitimate and not fake news?  After all, some of it can seem incredibly convincing!

Double check everything before forwarding.  Do your own research to see if the same information appears on other sites, or whether it has been publicly debunked.  There are a few websites that make it their business to research potential fake news articles (africacheck.org and snopes.com are good ones).

There are also online tools and checklists to help you to critically analyze the news and decide for yourself if it is real or fake.

https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/fake-news.htm is an excellent article that outlines 6 ways to spot fake news.  More information is in the article, but in summary:

  1. Have a critical mindset
  2. Check the source of the news
  3. Look to see what other sources say about the same story
  4. Examine what evidence has been given to support the story’s viewpoint
  5. Don’t take images at face value
  6. Use common sense; check that it “sounds right”

What are my legal responsibilities?

Arinda Truter, who is a junior associate at Dingley Marshall law firm, has written a fantastic, clear and concise article on this topic.  It can be found at https://www.lexisnexis.co.za/news-and-insights/covid-19-resource-centre/practice-areas/media-law/misinformation-and-fake-news-on-covid-19-action-will-be-taken!.   In summary, it states that under Regulation 11(5) of the Disaster Management Act 57 of 2002, “any person who publishes any statement, through any medium, including social media, with the intention to deceive any other person about COVID-19; the infection status of any person; or any measure taken by the Government to address COVID-19, commits an offense and is liable on conviction to a fine or imprisonment.”  This would include platforms such as WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, TikTok, SMS, Twitter, Instagram, etc.  Ms. Truter emphasizes in her article that you don’t have to be the creator of the fake news to be found guilty under the Act.  In fact, as the sharer, you have the same responsibility as the creator to ensure that you are not disseminating false information that was created with the intention to deceive.

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