Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ALAISTER RUSSELL
Picture: SUNDAY TIMES/ALAISTER RUSSELL

By this stage of the pandemic we have probably all received a dodgy WhatsApp message proclaiming a miracle cure for Covid-19, heard a voice note warning us that vaccines are made by the devil, or seen a Twitter post with a link to a conspiracy theorist claiming the pandemic was all part of an evil master plan.

In his most recent “family meeting” last Sunday on the government’s response to the pandemic President Cyril Ramaphosa acknowledged the danger of misinformation. He condemned the spread of “false images and videos” and pleaded with citizens to “think carefully before sharing anything on social media or elsewhere that may not be accurate or verified”. And on Monday, in his response to the violence and looting in parts of the country, the president again referred to the danger of disinformation and the potential for “inflammatory messages” to create “panic among our people”.

The pandemic has indeed provided fertile ground for conspiracy theories, rumours and misinformation to thrive. Faced with an overwhelming amount of information, much of which is confusing or new, an anxious public often does not know where to turn to find accurate and truthful information about the virus and appropriate responses. As vaccines have been rolled out globally, the surrounding disinformation only seemed to intensify. This surge in information, much of it misleading and false, has been referred to as an “infodemic” by the World Health Organization (WHO), which has warned against the potential of such misinformation to undermine trust in health authorities and hamper public health responses.

Here in SA, various stakeholders and organisations are volunteering their time to help the national health department stem the rising tide of disinformation. This Risk Communications & Community Engagement (RCCE) working group consists of about 30 non-governmental groups that assist government by engaging in “social listening” to find out which rumours and misinformation are circulating and then publishing a weekly report (on government’s SA coronavirus website). Members of the public can also do their part to support this initiative by reporting digital disinformation on the Real 411 website (www.real411.org), linked to the organisation Media Monitoring Africa.

However, countering misinformation is not only about knowing how to verify information you receive, but also about knowing which senders of information you can trust. This has been especially relevant in the context of a global pandemic where scientific knowledge and medical guidance continue to evolve while people’s anxiety levels continue to rise. In this environment it might unfortunately be comforting to latch onto a message that confirms your own biases, speaks your language or gives you some sense of security — even if the factual accuracy of that message has not been verified. Efforts to counter misinformation should therefore not rely only on debunking inaccurate facts but also ensure there is proper rapport between trustworthy messengers and receivers.

So, who do South Africans trust to deliver information about Covid-19? A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Cape Town and University of Houston encouragingly suggests scientific sources are high on the list of trusted communicators. South Africans surveyed online also said they rely mostly on established media sources such as television, radio and newspapers. However, government ranks much lower on the scale of trustworthiness than sources such as doctors or the WHO.

Most respondents said they disapprove of the government’s handling of the pandemic — a steep decline from a similar study in 2020, when most South Africans felt their government was doing a good job. Although the survey did not ask for reasons, the result might not be surprising at a time when South Africans saw their health minister, who last year still framed the government’s response in terms of science, being put on special leave in the wake of corruption allegations.

Nor, one would imagine, would the stuttering and often confusing vaccine programme — which only started picking up pace after the survey had been fielded — have inspired trust in pandemic-weary South Africans. Whatever the reasons, this trust deficit has an influence on the effectiveness of messages promoting vaccination. If receivers of pro-vaccination messages disapprove of the sender of the message they are less likely to trust its content or share it with others.

An online experiment run as part of the same study showed that people responded differently to the same pro-vaccination message depending on who they thought the sender was. When respondents saw a post that looked like it came from the WHO, the health department or the DA, they were more likely to share the post than when they thought it came from an ANC account.

There is some hope, however, that the misinformation around vaccines has not deterred South Africans from getting the jab. The study showed a relatively high rate of vaccine acceptance, a finding confirmed by the more recent NIDS-CRAM survey, which showed a continued increase in willingness to take a vaccine.

Despite the unexpected blow to the government’s vaccination programme this week by unrest in parts of the country, it looks like the rollout is finally gaining momentum. Although South Africans are keen to be vaccinated, a gap between intention and action might remain as a result of various practical factors, such as the problematic registration system and  inequities in people’s ability to get to vaccination sites.

Fighting misinformation is a responsibility shared by all of us who use social media platforms. But to counter bad information you also need a free flow of good, trusted information. In this regard, the government should ensure its own communication systems are not only efficient but also trusted. It would be wise to capitalise on the high rate of vaccine acceptance by ensuring the system continues to improve and decisions around the rollout are transparent and equitable.

Collaborative efforts with trusted scientific, media and non-governmental organisations are therefore a good idea — as long as their input is listened to. Crafting convincing vaccination campaign messages and stamping out misinformation is only part of the challenge  to get people vaccinated. Regaining trust in the messenger is going to require the longer and harder work of good, transparent and participatory governance.

• Wasserman is professor of media studies at the University of Cape Town. He currently leads two international studies on disinformation in the Global South funded by, respectively, the Canadian International Development Research Centre and the National Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences.

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