‘They say…’ – famous opening words for a story that is probably unverifiable and shaky at best.
When the COVID-19 outbreak reached South Africa in March this year we could not have predicted the impact it would have on individuals, businesses and our daily way of life.
One thing many of us did not see coming was the surge in fake news and misinformation. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) said in February 2020: ‘We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic.’
There is no doubt that social media carries the burden of being the conduit for most of this misinformation.
This pandemic has brought despair, fear and uncertainty in our personal lives. But in some ways, it has also reinvigorated our sense of hope, faith and innovation, especially in how we protect our livelihoods.
While individuals face the tough task of sifting through a barrage of conspiracy theories, businesses are looking to social media and digital tools to help them through an incredibly tough time.
Adversity forces innovation, and the COVID-19 pandemic has led to many traditional businesses accepting and adopting digital tools and systems. Digitisation efforts that seemed daunting mere months ago suddenly became necessary for survival. Many businesses have been forced into opening e-commerce stores, others have started accepting online payments for the first time and some have even migrated their entire business online.
Social media is an incredibly useful tool in the hands of businesses and enterprising individuals.
Those who have been using it as a tool for years have found new ways to capitalise on its benefits. And those who are new to it are seeing the transformational benefits of digital thinking.
Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, WhatsApp and others give businesses control of their message and give them a means of connecting to their community.
If you have been struggling to get started with digital tools the first step is acknowledging the need for change. Then start with something small and manageable. It may be something as simple as implementing a Whatsapp for Business contact number.
While business owners and those wanting to protect their livelihoods look to social media and the web as a means of recovery, the masses risk being caught in a web. A web of dubious information which is filled with weird, wonderful and wacky tales.
Sadly, this web is made up of many of our friends and family and for this reason it is quite easy to get caught up in it.
This web feeds us a daily intoxicating cocktail of pseudo-science, half-truths and fallacies which can trap even the most astute of readers, viewers and listeners. This web depends on two things: social media tools and willing human participants.
If you have heard a COVID-19 conspiracy theory at your dinner table that starts with: ‘I saw something on Facebook’, then you have experienced some part of this web. When we hear a story that starts with ‘they say’, we have to wonder: who exactly are they? Who did they hear it from? Do they know what they’re talking about? And most importantly, did they even really say that?
Depending on the type of information being shared it could be considered gossip. But unlike traditional gossip, which may start with ‘don’t tell anyone’, our misuse of digital tools promotes the act of actually telling more people.
COVID-19 spreads via humans and so does fake news. Technology companies like WhatsApp have tried different ways of mitigating the problem of fake news. For example, since April 2020 a WhatsApp message that has already been forwarded by five or more people can now only be forwarded to one person or one group. But the tools can only be blamed as far as the users who operate those tools. Forwarding-as-received tells the recipient that you do not care whether the information you’ve shared with them is real or not. There are potential long-term inter-personal effects to consider. At which point will the person stop trusting you as a person because you keep sending them junk?
When you press the share, forward, or retweet button, you take responsibility for the spreading of that information.
We have a responsibility to prevent the spread of COVID-19 by breaking the chain of transmission with social distancing. Equally, we have a responsibility to break the chain of fake news, misinformation, disinformation and rumours.
If you cannot do it for the recipient, or for the greater good, do it because you will indeed be held to account: ‘Do not concern yourself with things about which you have no knowledge. Verily, your hearing, sight, and heart — all of them will be called to account’ (Quran 17:36).
Sameer Parker is the Creative Director at Social Natives, a marketing and social media agency based in Cape Town.
Featured image: Sanitising your phone on the outside may help prevent COVID-19 from spreading. Responsible Social Media use will help prevent fake news from spreading. (Image: SOCIAL NATIVES)