The 1998 International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Plenipotentiary Conference in Minneapolis, United States, made a resolution to give ITU greater participation in the evolution of the Internet as a means of global communication. Consequently, the Conference called on ITU to plan for a World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) to among other things find mechanisms on how ICT could be deployed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals targets and promote inclusive global internet governance. ITU followed on this resolution and organised the WSIS in two phases in Geneva (Switzerland), from 10-12 December 2003 and in Tunis (Tunisia), from 16-18 November 2005 respectively. ITU is the United Nations specialized agency for information and communication technologies founded way back in 1865 to facilitate international seamless connectivity of networks through broad-based standardisation.

WSIS was aimed at addressing the issues brought about by information and communication technologies such as the digital divide, internet governance, telecommunication standardisation and responsible and inclusive use of ICTs. The key outcome of the Geneva WSIS was a declaration of principles that would determine the ability of humankind to harness the potential of ICTs for development in order to realise an inclusive and responsible information society. The Tunis WSIS conference on the other hand, focused on global internet governance given that the Internet had increased ten-fold, while the number of mobile phones and internet users had rapidly grown. Currently, there are over 4.4 billion internet, 10 billion cell phone and over 3.5 billion social media users globally according to the UN digital analyst projections.

The Information Society envisaged by ITU is one in which anyone without distinction including children would have universal access and accessibility to information using diversity of media and where the creation, distribution, and manipulation of information becomes the most significant economic and cultural driver. The information society underlines Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; that this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. WSIS underscored the importance of ethics in the Information Society especially, in fostering justice, the dignity and worth of the human person.

The WSIS was alive to the fact that the pervasive and ubiquitous use of ICTs would have the potential to create an environment for purposes inconsistent with the information society including abusing technologies for criminal and terrorist purposes, including spam and cybersecurity. WSIS therefore underscored the responsible use of ICTs and content creation while respecting human rights and fundamental freedoms of others, including personal privacy, and the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion in conformity with relevant international instruments. WSIS also envisaged that all actors in the Information Society would take appropriate actions and preventive measures, as determined by law, against abusive uses of ICTs, such as illegal and other acts motivated by racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia, intolerance, hatred, violence, all forms of child abuse, paedophilia, child pornography, and trafficking in, and exploitation of, human beings.

Notwithstanding the vision and aspirations of WSIS for the information society, the outbreak of the corona virus has occasioned several myths, disinformation and misinformation that is continually spewed on both social media and sometimes mainstream media, inconsistent with the WSIS declarations of principles especially on ethics and morality. The abundance and misinformation, disinformation and fake news being propagated about COVID-19 has been given impetus by new digital platforms and citizen journalism among others. The avalanche of such misinformation, disinformation and propaganda is what David J. Rothkopf referred to as infodemic in 2003 during the outbreak of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). At that time Rothkopf introduced the term to mean facts, mixed with fear, speculation and rumour, amplified and relayed swiftly all over the world by the modern information technologies.

According to the WHO, infodemic is the excessive or overabundance of false, malicious and incorrect information spread quickly and widely concerning a problem such that the solution is made more difficult. UNESCO warns that when disinformation is repeated and amplified, including by influential people, the grave danger is that information which is based on truth, ends up having only marginal impact. The situation is not made any better because of the lack of effective policy, regulatory and technical mechanism to control such misinformation on social media. Social media sites such as Twitter, Instagram and blogs have been awash with conspiracy theories on the origin of the corona virus. The theories advanced have included that the virus is a bio-weapon created in an American lab in Wuhan, that sulphur-dioxide emissions over China was evidence of the pervasive and mass cremation of COVID-19 victims. Some other conspiracy theories have advanced the position that leading global foundations such as Roche child, Rockefeller, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations played a role in the outbreak of the corona virus for their business interests. Some of the misinformation and disinformation border on racism and xenophobia. For example it has been claimed that young or people of African descent are immune to COVID-19, the virus is being spread by foreigners, and that people in warm countries need not worry about the pandemic.

South Africa has not been spared from the spews of fake news awash on social media about the pandemic. During the lockdown some of the misinformation and disinformation included: Bottle stores to reopen for public on 22 April 2020; SASSA WhatsApp line for R350 grant is live; Minister announces trading liquor hours (12 April 2020; Small non-essential shops can reope; Foreign nationals to depart South Africa (7 April 2020; misleading video clip on COVID-19 test kit; 90 Days lock down (31 March 2020; Schools opening date might be carried to the 10th of September (25 March 2020; Landlords barred from collecting house rent for the next 90 days (22 March 2020); Chinese nationals buying their way into the country (25 March 2020). The Executive Director of National Professional Teachers’ Organisation of South Africa (NAPTOSA) in an interview with SABC Morning Live on 29 April expressed great concern about the misinformation especially on the reopening of schools post the lockdown.

Some other misinformation and disinformation that has been peddled around COVID-19 on social media around the world include treatment regimen for the virus consisting of one or more of the following: high doses of vitamin C, raw garlic, black oil, cocaine, disinfectant injections, ultraviolet light, cognac for throat disinfection, gargling the mouth with salt water among others. Of great concern is that some of the misinformation and disinformation has been propagated by prominent political leaders. UNESCO observes that the motives for spreading misinformation and disinformation are many, and include among others political aims, self-promotion, and attracting attention as part of a business model. The fake news in South Africa and indeed the rest of the world has been exacerbated by lockdown and keeping people at home, however, armed with smartphones, and also in desperate search for information people have become easy prey to misinformation and disinformation.

The challenge of infodemic is that it travels faster, broader and deeper more than accurate information. Its power is also in the use of videos, pictures, text, songs, and films to substantiate false claims. The challenge of uncontrolled infodemic is that it negatively influences policy and public debate. In this regard, WHO has warned that infodemic about the COVID-19 has created a lot of fear and misconception that has affected policy formulation in regards to vaccination, mobility of people and border closures. A lack of reliable information especially during crises like COVID-19 can cause more infections and deaths and unnecessary humanitarian catastrophe. The WHO says the likely consequence of misinformation, is complacency, which could fuel more premature deaths. Recently, in a report released by the Iranian Government at the height of corona pandemic, alcohol poisoning over a two-month period was 10 times the number of cases during the whole of 2019. The country’s coroner’s authority said alcohol poisoning killed 728 people between February 20 and April 7 2020 compared to 66 deaths from alcohol poisoning in 2019.

The foregoing begs the question, what can be done to fend off fake news especially in a crisis such as COVID-19? UNESCO offers some advice: there is need to improve the supply of truthful information, and ensure that the demand is met. The government must undertake to become more transparent, and proactively disclose more data in line with the right of access to information, enabling evidence –based information uptake; government must also not impose restrictions on freedom of expression as a remedy to disinformation. UNESCO in partnership with other agencies including WHO and non-governmental organisations is striving to create awareness about people becoming more critical of the information being presented to them online and elsewhere. In this regard, the agency is using the hashtags #ThinkBeforeSharing, #ThinkBeforeClicking, and #ShareKnowledge to create such awareness. In addition, prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19, UNESCO had in 2018 launched Journalism, ‘Fake News’ and Disinformation Handbook at the Internet Governance Forum to help fight back against what it called pollution of the information environment.

WHO has also responded to counter infodemic by partnering with social media firms to promote the dissemination of accurate content by setting up structures that first check for the facts before passing on the content. In addition, the world body has added a “myth busters” section to its online coronavirus advice pages. This helps to refute myths, including claims that drinking potent alcoholic drinks, exposure to high temperatures, or conversely, cold weather, can kill the virus. Similarly, Google now directs searches to WHO and other credible local health authorities to authenticate the information posted on social media suspected to be fake news. Also, Facebook, is running adverts encouraging users to seek information on COVID-19 from WHO, The Red Cross and other credible sources such as centre for disease control. Fact-checking website Africa Check is another useful tool for coronavirus fact-checks. In South Africa, COVID-19 Corona virus South African Resource Portal of the Department of Health, and Government blog WWW.REAL411.ORG.ZA (or the WhatsApp line: 067 966 4015) is a partnership of government (Ministry of Digital Technologies, NDP2030), private sector and NGOs to curb the spread of disinformation. The government of South Africa has made it a punishable offence for anyone that creates or spreads fake news. Such a person is liable to a fine or six months imprisonment or both.

From the information science perspective CRAAP test is one way of verifying the authenticity of the information, it uses five criteria developed by university of West Florida Libraries (US) that include: Currency: is the information current? Relevance: is the information important to your needs? Authority: who is the author/publisher/sponsor of the news? Accuracy: Is the information supported by evidence? Purpose: What is the purpose of this news? On the whole, people are advised to verify the information before they share or retweet it and also treating with utmost care information from lesser known sources.
In addition, infodemic can be overcome by verifying information from multiple sources that come our way, service providers are obligated also to deploy technical, policy, legal, regulatory and news literacy mechanisms to help identify fake news. Organisations have a responsibility to protect its workers by being on the lookout for distorted and fake news and alerting them timeously. Moreover, implementation of science in social media could help create a critical mass of authentic and empirically verifiable information and in effect lessen fake news. Some education and research organisations are investing more in technology such as fake news detection software to help identify fake news through algorithms and crowdsourcing. At UKZN, the COVID-19 war room is a credible source of information on the pandemic. The mainstream media could become more proactive and increasing its footprint to include monitoring and countering fake news in real-time. Government need to continually enact and/or review its policy on social media to make the platform more responsive to the need of its citizens.

Notwithstanding, the bombardment of misinformation perpetuated through social media and the efforts being made to mitigate the negative impact of infodemic, a marketing specialist Kristine de Valck underscores the importance of the social media in times of crises such as COVID-19, the earthquake, a tsunami like the one which caused the nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011, the terrorists attacks in Paris and elsewhere in Europe over the past years. Through social media, community and emotional support is provided all over the world by people reaching out to each other to make sense of what’s happening. Social media also provides opportunities for people to creatively deal with the lockdown through entertainment and to help others who may need assistance with grocery shopping or childcare. Social media is therefore an important tool and the primary sources of information that underpin the information society envisaged by WSIS where everybody without distinction has access to information at their fingertips and are free to exercise their legitimate rights to freedom of speech, expression, and association without unnecessary hindrances from the state while respecting the legitimacy, dignity and rights of others as enunciated by UN declaration of human rights way back in 1948.

Professor Stephen M Mutula

Professor Stephen M Mutula

Professor Stephen M Mutula is the Dean and Head of the School of Management, Information Technology and Governance (SMIG). He is a full professor of Information Science and an NRF-rated researcher with a wealth of academic and scholarly leadership experience spanning over 33 years in East and Southern African university environments.

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