South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa briefs the  media about the country's first case of Covid-19 last month.

Citing Virus Misinformation, South Africa Tests Speech Limits

“African blood and black skin prevent Covid-19.” This is one of the many claims that the fact-checking organization Africa Check has disproved since the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 emerged in December 2019. In South Africa, where Africa Check is headquartered, there are rumors that the virus only affects white people, leading some residents to ignore warning signs that they might be infected.

“Just this past weekend, we received over 200 requests to fact-check information related to the pandemic, many times over what we got on a ‘normal’ weekend of the last quarter of 2019,” wrote Lee Mwiti, Africa Check’s chief editor, in an email to Undark.

As the virus spreads across the globe, bringing with it the threat of disease and economic collapse, the World Health Organization has warned of a second contagion: false information. Around the world, politicians, profiteers, and others have — sometimes unwittingly, sometimes not — transmitted inaccurate information about the virus and the disease it causes, Covid-19. In some cases, such misinformation has had tragic results.

In response, South Africa made it a criminal offense to spread disinformation about the disease. Whether through traditional or social media, it is now illegal to publish any statement that intends to deceive people about the virus, a person’s infection status, or “any measure taken by the government to address Covid-19.” If found guilty, violators could face a fine, jail time, or both.

South Africa is not alone. Authorities in the Philippines, Thailand, and Cambodia are among several nations that have criminalized or begun crackdowns on the spread of “false news” as part of their emergency responses to Covid-19. But as a stable democracy for nearly 30 years, South Africa is unique among these comparatively autocratic nations in adopting what some critics are now calling an overly heavy-handed approach to controlling disinformation — one with potentially wide-reaching consequences in a nation that has wrestled with rules regarding media disinformation on other fronts for years.

For their part, defenders of the new regulations argue that they are necessary as South Africa scrambles to contain the spread of the virus: So far, according to Johns Hopkins University, the country has more than 1,400 confirmed cases of Covid-19. Officials recorded the first death from the disease on March 27. Barring those working in essential services, which includes health care workers and journalists, the country is now on lockdown, and the government has expressed fears that its beleaguered health care system — already straining under the weight of widespread HIV and tuberculosis epidemics — will be unable to cope if the virus moves unhindered through its vulnerable population.

For now, free-speech and human rights activists are watching closely to see whether the new measures — which arrived alongside court decisions that might help combat disinformation in the press specifically — will yield benefits that outweigh their concerns, or whether they will prove vulnerable to abuse.

False information can have violent real-world consequences. As BuzzFeed News reported on March 9, Novi Sanzhary, a small Ukrainian town, descended into chaos in late February when a fake email, ostensibly sent from the Ministry of Health, falsely reported that Covid-19 cases had begun appearing in the country. Protests, clashes with riot police, and the targeting of citizens evacuated from China all followed.

“I don’t know where one draws the line, but in the current crisis, it is quite right to look at potentially limiting some freedom of speech.”

“I don’t know where one draws the line, but in the current crisis, it is quite right to look at potentially limiting some freedom of speech,” said James Wilsdon, director of the Research on Research Institute at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, when asked about the appropriateness of disinformation laws. This is, he added, an “unprecedented situation.”

But human rights and free-speech advocates warn that it can be too easy for governments or politicians to frame critical reporting or comments as fake news. Many countries have struggled with disinformation on the internet in recent years and have put regulations in place to fight it, but there are numerous incidents — from Iran to Tanzania — where such laws have then been used to curb political dissent.

Such slippery slopes, critics suggest, can be hard to navigate. It’s one thing, for example, to publicly suggest, as has been done on some Africa-based social media channels, that Covid-19 can be treated by gargling with vinegar. It’s another for scientists to publicly disagree with government officials about how best to deal with the pandemic, including when and whether the country should go into lockdown — as has happened in the U.K.

Fiona Fox, head of the Science Media Center in the U.K., which facilitates the dissemination of science and engineering information to journalists and policymakers, said she is nervous about the prospect of policing journalists, scientists, and even politicians. “How far do you go?” she said. “Do you eliminate politicians who are criticizing government’s role on [Covid-19] because they are confusing the public?”

South Africa’s Covid-19 regulations do not lay out who has the power to decide whether a newspaper article or social media post is false, and experts suggest that government officials would have a lot of leeway in making such a decision. But so far, said Mahlatse Mahlase, the head of the South African National Editors’ Forum, there has been no evidence of the government abusing this power.

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The South African regulations also only pertain to information about Covid-19 that intends to deceive the public, said media lawyer Dario Milo, a partner at the South African law firm Webber Wentzel. That is, their focus is on information that is purposefully rather than unconsciously false — disinformation, not misinformation. “This effectively means that you would be guilty of the offense only if you knew that the information you are disseminating is false,” wrote Milo in an email to Undark.

But critics counter that intention can be difficult to determine, let alone prosecute. An audio clip that recently went viral in South Africa via the text platform WhatsApp, claimed to be from the head of virology at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. In the voice note, the speaker emphasized that the situation in South Africa was going to get a lot worse, and it made projections about how many people would die.

The actual hospital and its virology director denied that the message had come from them, and it later emerged that a young, unidentified doctor had simply sent the note to her mother in order to scare her into staying home. “The reality is that it is often incredibly hard to identify and recognize motives behind misinformation that is shared,” said Scott Brennen, a researcher at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. What might start as purposefully disseminated false information could then be shared in good faith, he claimed. The “distinction breaks down quickly.”

While intention can be difficult to determine, simply calling out false information has just become a lot easier for South African journalists. In the same week that the government announced its regulations on Covid-19 reporting, the South African press regulator clarified its rules on providing balanced reporting of science, giving journalists the power to decide whether to give a platform to people pushing unscientific information. 

Just over a year ago, journalist Natasha Bolognesi wrote a story for the South African news agency GroundUp about companies offering to treat cancer and Alzheimer’s patients using pure oxygen delivered in a pressurized room — known as hyperbaric oxygen therapy — despite expert concerns about its safety and efficacy. One such company, O2xygenate, took the news agency to South Africa’s media regulators, claiming that, under the law, it should have been afforded the opportunity to have its perspective shared in the story as well.

“How far do you go? Do you eliminate politicians who are criticizing government’s role on [Covid-19] because they are confusing the public?”

According to South Africa’s Press Code, if an article is critical of a person or company, then that person or company should be given the opportunity to have their viewpoints included. But, because the GroundUp article was reporting on matters of science, not simple news, the press regulator ruled that such a right of reply on the topic wasn’t necessary. Not only that, a subsequent appeal also confirmed that GroundUp could name O2xygenate specifically in its science news coverage without necessarily offering it the opportunity to respond.

Science journalists in the country see this as an avenue to combating disinformation, too. “It strengthens the hand of the media to counter often dangerous quackery, as the many sudden ‘cures’ and ‘solutions’ by quacks and charlatans to prevent Covid-19 or to heal those who are ill, testify,” wrote George Claassen, public editor of News24, South Africa’s largest news website. He was part of the team that brought the GroundUp appeal, and is now lobbying to have the Press Code updated in the wake of its findings.

Some academics welcome such efforts. John Cook, a researcher at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University in Virginia, explores climate change misinformation, and said in areas where there is consensus, being forced to include dissenting voices endangers the public. In a 2017 paper, Cook showed that including arguments from climate denialists reduced public acceptance that global warming was happening. This has made people less likely to act to curb climate change. But, he said, there are also areas where the science is fairly new — “and that is where you need to be more careful.”

Covid-19 is seen by some as one such area — not least because determining how much weight to give scientific evidence becomes crucial during a pandemic. But the novelty and sheer volume of information on Covid-19 makes reporting more difficult. Scientists are accelerating their research efforts and, as Reuters and other news outlets — including Undark — have reported, many papers are ending up in the public sphere without having been peer-reviewed. Some of what’s being published, experts say, is sowing confusion and fear, and journalists — most of whom are not science specialists — may not be equipped to weed out dubious science or recognize where balanced reporting might be beneficial.

All journalists are now focusing on Covid-19, said Fox of the Science Media Center, including “political, general news, consumer reporters, who can’t figure out a good scientist from a bad scientist.”

The World Health Organization has even coined a name for the difficult situation that journalists and others now find themselves in: an “‘infodemic’ — an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

In declaring a national disaster last month, South Africa’s President President Cyril Ramaphosa emphasized the threat that the spread of Covid-19 misinformation posed. “Perhaps the greatest dangers to our country at this time are fear and ignorance,” he was quoted as saying by the news agency Reuters. “We should stop spreading fake and unverified news and creating further apprehension and alarm.”

Such concerns are not new to the country. Indeed, when the HIV epidemic began to take root in South Africa decades ago, the false information came from the government itself. In the early 2000s, then-president Thabo Mbeki and his health minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang denied antiretrovirals to people infected with HIV, advocating unproven herbal remedies and beetroot and lemon juice instead. Researchers estimate that these policies led to the unnecessary deaths of more than 330,000 people.

“Perhaps the greatest dangers to our country at this time are fear and ignorance. We should stop spreading fake and unverified news and creating further apprehension and alarm.”

At the time, Nathan Geffen, editor of GroundUp, was part of the Treatment Action Campaign, a civil society organization that was pivotal in forcing the government to reverse its HIV stance. The experience left him “ever more convinced that freedom of expression is something to be treasured and protected,” he said.

The potential for South African authorities to be the source of false information about Covid-19 — and there being a need for the public to be free to contradict it — isn’t far-fetched. On March 18, Mzwandile Masina, the mayor of the metropolitan municipality of Ekurhuleni, home to over 3 million people, said he would be using the city’s emergency funds to purchase a Covid-19 vaccine — despite no vaccine existing. The drug he was referring to, interferon-alfa-2B, has been used to treat the symptoms of earlier coronavirus strains, but it isn’t a vaccine and there is no evidence it will stop people getting Covid-19.

“There may be an occasion when the public interest against allowing misinformation is overwhelming, but our courts can be the judge of that within the framework of the constitution,” Geffen said.

South Africa’s chief justice has said that the country’s courts must remain open during the country’s lockdown — if only in case citizens want to challenge any of the Covid-19 regulations, including those on disinformation.

As the country waits to see what effect these new rules will have on Covid-19 information sharing, Africa Check’s Mwiti says he still has his hands full trying to stand against a deluge of inaccurate information. The organization checked more than 200 claims in February and March, but this, he wrote in an email to Undark, “is only a drop in the bucket.” With the rise of Covid-19, fact-checking requests from the public have increased “almost exponentially,” Mwiti said.

“We are very keen to fact-check reader-sourced requests, because this is what they are encountering in their daily lives,” he added. “A lot of it can be harmful if allowed to spread unchallenged.”

Disclosure: The author of this story has previously done work for Africa Check, a fact-checking organization whose chief editor is quoted in this piece.

Sarah Wild is a freelance science journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa. Her work has appeared in Nature, Quartz, and New Scientist, among other publications.

Sarah Wild is a freelance science journalist based in Canterbury, England.