A tale of two hills
Disinformation in the time of Covid
In the face of the uncertainty of the present, truth is especially important. This is a time where misinformation can kill people, cultures and societies
In the village where I have chosen to sit out lockdown, two hills lour over me. They’re part of a larger mountain range, and my house is situated at the foot of the closest one. It’s called Slangkop, and I assume it’s named after the snakes that make it their home. Occasional cobras glide through my garden on inscrutable missions. On top of the hill squats the remains of Cobra Camp, a radar station built during the 1940s to look out for German submarines.
The meagre information I’ve tracked down suggests Cobra Camp was mostly manned by women, which shows you how much work the English language still has to do to catch up with its changing reality.
Occasionally, I’ve spotted people up at the blockhouse, breaking national lockdown to hike up the mountain, secure in the belief that the rules don’t really apply to them. Given the general stillness of the environment in this time — empty roads, deserted skies unscarred by vapour trails, waves breaking in the distance without the usual surfers carving lines of purpose across their blank faces — the figures are jarring and anomalous.
I think of the radar station personnel, and their vigilant monitoring of Nazi activity, whenever I read another asinine comment that seeks to convince us that the censuring of community members who break lockdown rules is akin to the betrayal of Jews to the Nazis during World War 2. It’s a stupidity that reveals a gaping lack of historical context, as well as a dearth of empathy.
Some of the people in this village — it’s always only some — signed a petition to President Cyril Ramaphosa, asking that surfing be made an essential activity during the lockdown. If Privilege were one of the four Horsemen of the Bourgeoispocalypse, this is where he’d stable his mount. His three compatriots, Indignation, Exceptionalism and Whiney, would have holiday homes here.
I’m not naming the village, because it’s not at all an anomaly in middle-class SA. It’s merely a salt-sprayed synecdoche, standing in for the lamentable entirety.
There’s a certain type of South African who used to spend pre-lockdown mornings railing against the fact that taxi drivers seem to feel they’re above petty laws, such as stopping for red traffic lights or not overtaking on solid white lines. They demand that Something Be Done, and complain that taxi drivers think they can do whatever they want, but ordinary citizens have to obey the law. They now occupy their circumscribed evenings cavilling at the notion that the government expects them to obey the same lockdown restrictions as ordinary people. What about the poor dogs?
And they hate it when a neighbour points out that they shouldn’t be going for a sneaky run, or a quick walk on the mountain. "Snitch!" is the cry. Nazi sympathiser! Stasi informer!
It has become so bad in this neck of the milkwoods, that I actually saw a post on a Baboon Location WhatsApp group (yes, baboons here wander through the village every couple of days) asking that we don’t call the baboon monitors to report scavenging baboons. That’s where we are — being told we shouldn’t snitch on the baboons.
There’s nothing new about this, a troop of baboons running through the village. It’s not a consequence of lockdown, of the streets being emptier. But what is new is the trope that has started running through social discourse lately, to the effect that "nature is coming back". You know the sort of thing: a picture of Venice’s canals, miraculously sparkling and clean, which unfortunately turns out to be a picture of somewhere else entirely.
The trope is often accompanied by disinformation and its necessary handmaiden, misinformation.
The company I work for has its own modern-day versions of Cobra Camp: digital forensics labs based in East and Southern Africa. They are staffed by people dedicated to spotting misinfo and disinfo, exposing it, and giving people the information with which to fight it.
In this lockdown it’s not nature that’s coming back, but history, sneaking into our heads like a wild animal that was uneasily driven into hiding by the industrial rush of our digital environment.
Like the radar operators, our misinfo teams are the early-warning systems that spot the sneaky submarines of fake news as they cautiously raise their snorkels above water. In this ham-fisted analogy, the oxygen that disinformation seeks is the currency of engagement, without which fake news can’t make money.
I’ve just looked up the etymology of the word ham-fisted, hoping it would refer to the days of ham radios, which would have drawn my metaphors together rather nicely. Alas, it doesn’t, but it was a term popularised by pilots during World War 1, so give me credit for a kind of tangentiality.
If you ever stop to think about it, there are many words and terms we use without really considering what they mean, or how they came to mean what they do. Or even if they actually mean what we think they do.
An example: the English-speaking universe hasn’t really fixed on a definition of fake news yet, and the terms misinformation and disinformation are sometimes confused. These are technical terms in the world I inhabit, but not perhaps as well-defined in general usage.
Misinformation is the accidental spreading of untruths and false information, whereas disinformation is deliberate untruth spread on purpose to deceive.
The first online dictionary that a Google search refers to would have you believe that disinformation is a synonym for misinformation, which again shows us how much work the English language has to do to catch up with its changing — and in this case, changed — reality.
In a way, this is emblematic of what the determining point of disinformation is: to make us doubt that there can be a fixed truth, or indeed any agreed-upon definition of the concept of truth.
We should by now — I say should — have internalised, consciously or unconsciously, the warning signs of misinformation. The best guide, possibly, is Matthew 7:15, in the King James edition of the Christian Bible: "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves."
In other words, as the old adage has it, "if it’s too good to be true, it probably is".
Further along the mountain range, on the second of the two hills that bookmark both my lockdown and this essay, a large white cross insistently looms over the village. It manages, as do most religious symbols, to look both awful and smug.
A while ago, in the impossibly distant time before lockdown, someone on social media questioned why it was there, on what he assumed was National Parks land. I had some sympathy for his argument, which appeared to be that the cross was an insult imposed on those who aren’t religious, and an aggressive assertion of a belief system that we don’t all share.
There was a predictable response. He was told that the cross had been there "forever", and was an integral part of defining what the community is. And he was told: if you don’t like it, feel free to move somewhere else, to a community whose unspoken rules you will abide by.
I often turn to religious texts when I’m trying to make sense of the morass of motivations that inform our day-to-day existence. This can seem a strange thing for someone to do, when that someone is what I believe Christians call "an atheist". But if you want to understand how people can embody two opposing viewpoints simultaneously, you need to look to faith.
I take comfort from the words of writer and musician Nick Cave, and also from an aphorism attributed to Chinese strategist Sun Tzu.
Cave tells us: "The more I become willing to open my mind to the unknown, my imagination to the impossible and my heart to the notion of the divine, the more God becomes apparent. I think we get what we are willing to believe, and that our experience of the world extends exactly to the limits of our interest and credence."
And as Sun Tzu’s aphorism has it: "If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."
The salient point Cave makes, I think, is this: we get what we are willing to believe.
I wrote a piece inspired by this idea, titled "Fake News? Blame God." Its message was that we shouldn’t call made-up stories — the ones people credulously pass around on social media — "fake news". It should more properly be referred to as faith-based news, as it isn’t primarily designed to fool us, but to make us choose to believe.
What we choose to believe during lockdown is important. Misinformation can kill. It can kill people, but it can also kill societies and cultures.
As much as we long for the certitudes embodied by my two hills, the one delivered with the force of historical nostalgia, when enemies were knowable, and right and wrong clearly defined, and the other the imprimatur of a kind of Golgotha, where a god tells us what to do and we choose to believe, this isn’t the kind of thinking that will get us through to the other side.
"Lockdown" is a word that carries a terrible, antecedent resonance, if you trace its usage. It refers to the confinement of rioting prisoners to their cells, and also to the terrible American necessity to lock down schools in the event of an active school shooting.
There’s a chance that our lockdown will be defined more positively if we all choose to believe the same truths. Or even to believe in the possibility of truth.
*This is an extract from Lockdown Extended: Corona Chronicles (Melinda Ferguson Books), edited by Melinda Ferguson. It is expected to be available in book stores from about June 20