The Sunday News
Mugove Hamadziripi, Sunday News Correspondent
WAY before the advent of Covid-19 , humanity has been confronted online with misinformation and disinformation on a number of health topics. However, it should be noted that there is a distinction between these two words – misinformation and disinformation. Misinformation can be defined as a broader classification of false or inaccurate claims shared largely unwittingly and without the intention to deceive.
On the other hand, disinformation is a specific subset of misinformation created with deliberate intentions to deceive (Johns Hopkins University 2021). Both have caused significant and real harm throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, it is of paramount importance that we as a people or recipients of information, including relevant authorities, analyse different types of information across different channels, how it is spread and to whom, in order to determine how social media can be harnessed in both positive and negative ways.
The World Health Organisation recommends proactive communication during a public health emergency that, “encourages the public to adopt protective behaviours, facilitates heightened disease surveillance, reduces confusion and allows for better allocation of resources – all of which are necessary for an effective response” (WHO 2021).
With its global influence, social media requires particular consideration during times of public health emergencies and was highlighted as a key issue by the Social Science Working Group of WHO’s Global Research Roadmap for Covid-19 in 2020.
Timely, accurate communication through all media sources is a critical component of ensuring trust in response activities. As big tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter are stepping up accountability measures on their platforms, addressing disinformation and misinformation challenges before us as a country and as a people, calls a broad and all-encompassing solution and an attentive and national approach.
During emergencies like Covid-19, we experience some of the most common threads of mis- and disinformation that are categorised into mischaracterisation of the disease or protective measures that are needed; false treatments or medical interventions; scapegoating of groups of people; and conspiracy theories—often about the existence or origin of the pathogen, profiteering, or politics(Johns Hopkins University 2021).
As a country, I suppose we need to see more outreach through social media platforms and news media, and greatly increase the flow of true information through many channels rather than just the public health echo chamber.
Zimbabwe should come up with a comprehensive plan for a national approach to stamping out mis- and disinformation. There are common threads of mis- and disinformation in the context of Covid-19 we have been witnessing since early 2020 when the pandemic first knocked on our doors. Usually, during health emergencies like Covid-19, we have witnessed at least four types of false information: mischaracterisation of the disease or protective measures that are needed; false treatments or medical interventions; scapegoating of groups of people; and conspiracy theories—often about the existence or origin of the pathogen, profiteering, or politics.
As individuals, how can we learn how to identify mis- or disinformation online? Rhetoric as the question might sound, this is a very important and great question. While systemic changes are needed, they should also include ways to help the citizens become more resilient to false information—so that when citizens come across misinformation online, little of it would penetrate, like water off a duck’s back.
To do this, the Government should promote health and digital literacy through multiple sources including schools, community organisations, social media, and news media – both private and state owned. Citizens, as consumers of such information, need to be furnished with tools to choose responsible sources of information and increase their awareness of disinformation tactics and approaches during this time.
There should at least be four pillars in the proposed strategy: Intervene against false and damaging content as well as the sources propagating it. Promote and ensure the abundant presence and dissemination of factual information.
Increase the public’s resilience to misinformation and disinformation. Coordination of a national strategy that includes input from social and news media, government, national security officials, public health officials, scientists, and the public.
Of great importance is treating mis and disinformation as an issue of national security. Elevating it from a public health risk communication issue to something that acknowledges that the spread of false health-related information, especially during health emergencies, has implications for national security (John Hopkins 2021).
I suggest that we follow the following basic rules when it comes to identifying and dealing with false information on Covid-19 should you come across false information online – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp or online news media:
Don’t repeat or retweet the lie, even with a correction! If you don’t know the source or know if the source is legitimate, limit direct engagement. Report it to social media companies. Provide true information. If one needs to respond to people who believe false information, engage respectfully, connect along common values, talk about tactics and how misinformation draws you in, discuss alternative explanations, encourage verification, provide alternative sources.
Here are some ways citizens can check for false information: Use web-based tools and services that can provide unbiased assessment of source credibility. Verify the information with other news sources, trusted people in your network, or cross-referencing with the best information available. Ensure that the source is known, credible, and trusted by taking a close look at the social media account, web URL, or layout that might suggest lack of editorial oversight. Think twice about messages that seem designed to appeal to emotions.
Increase awareness of disinformation campaign tactics and personal biases that influence judgment of sources and information, as well as one’s capacity to change opinion when presented with new evidence. By way of an epilogue, the question arises on what would it look like for such a diverse group of stakeholders (drawn from across the divide) to come together for a Zimbabwean strategy like the one discussed above?
I call upon collective planning for a strategy from the Ministry of Health and Child Care,Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services, social media, news media, Non State Actors (NSA), UN Agencies, Bilateral institutions, national security officials, constitutional scholars, public health officials, scientists, and the public. If we can’t bring all the stakeholders together and move forward in a coordinated manner, this just becomes a whack-a-mole situation.
Mugove Hamadziri consults with the Centre for Impact Evaluation and Research Design and Erongo Consulting Group.He has worked on pandemic preparedness and response with a focus on risk and Development communication and management of Public health misinformation, and can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected],