Protecting ourselves from a Coronavirus infodemic in South Africa

 Thursday, 19 March 2020
19:30 SAST, CAT | 20:30 EAT | 17:30 BST | 13:30 EST | 18:30 CET
Hashtag: #hcsmSA 

Moderator: @hcsmSA
Facebook event reminder

Join us for a 60-minute session to share views and concerns about fake news related to the Coronavirus outbreak in South Africa using the hashtag #hcsmSA. All stakeholders locally and globally are welcome. The public transcript will be recorded by Symplur.

T1: Where do you think fake news comes from on the web or social media?

T2: What examples of fake news have you seen during the Coronavirus outbreak in South Africa?

T3: What type of damage do you think fake news can cause during COVID-19 in South Africa?

T4: How can we tackle fake news during the Coronavirus outbreak in South Africa?

CT: (Closing Thoughts):
 Is there anything you feel is important to add to this conversation?

Start your answers with T1, T2, T3, T4 or CT for transcript purposes.
Answer only after the moderator prompts. Questions will be prompted every 10 minutes, but keep answers coming using the relevant T and number.
Use the #hcsmSA hashtag in all tweets so you are visible to others in the chat as well as on the transcript afterwards.
Please also do include any of the secondary hashtags which are trending in South Africa currently like #CoronaVirusSA, #CoronaVirusinSA, #CoronavirusSouthAfrica and #COVID19SA in your tweets.

One of the greatest global challenges we have online during a disease outbreak like COVID-19 is our ability to access reputable information. As good digital citizens, we need to be aware of internet risks especially for healthcare and act responsibly to protect each other. Freely available, user-generated information from social media platforms like Facebook, TikTok or Twitter which are unregulated in most countries including South Africa make it even more difficult to control the spread of fake news. Health communication often receives less attention and fewer resources than medical, scientific or policy areas, but it is one of the most critical contributors towards how the public reacts during a crisis. Failure to convey the right information risks costly consequences at the individual and societal levels. In a crisis situation, panic can spread quickly and the way communication is handled can either cost or save lives. (1)

Fake news comes in all shapes and sizes and targets every digital demographic, including our youth. Take for example the most recently trending Plague Inc. game where the mission is to create a virus and kill as many people on earth as possible (2). A search for “Coronavirus Plague Inc” on Google brings up hundreds of results during the past few weeks including articles around how China has banned it from their app stores during the COVID-19 outbreak (3). Whilst some people praise the game, others see it as distasteful because it isn’t based on scientific evidence and therefore might be causing unnecessary panic. Gaming tools can be helpful in promoting behaviour change, but it’s important that we monitor what type of content is being used to do that, especially among children. Educational programs are starting to form part of our school curriculum such as outlined in the Digital Learning Framework from the Department of Basic Education (4), however, digital skills training should also be extended to the rest of the population so everyone can learn to separate fact from fiction. Organisations like the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) are embarking on this, but more needs to be done in South Africa right now (5).

Another important aspect of fake news to understand is that misinformation is different from disinformation. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, whether or not there was the intent, misinformation is incorrect or inaccurate information that is misleading. Whereas disinformation is more sinister. Disinformation is false information deliberately and often covertly spread (as by the planting of rumours) in order to influence public opinion or obscure the truth. To help you remember the difference: Misinformation is misleading. Disinformation is a damn lie (6).

Fake news can come from all sorts of different sources including, but not limited to, journalist websites (especially unreputable ones), blogs, social media posts or messages (even from friends and family), cyber terrorists, trolls, cyborgs and bots. It can also be spread through mobile applications like Whatsapp which is why you must check all information with authorities like the NICD, WHO or National Department of Health before sharing it, even if that message came from a trusted friend or family member (7). So what is the difference between all of these? To explain one or two in general, trolls are people who want to provoke and upset others online for their own amusement. If a troll becomes spammy or begins to clog up a conversation thread, you can opt to report them to the site’s moderation team. Depending on the website, there’s a chance nothing happens, but you should do your part to actively dissuade them from trolling on that platform, especially if they are sharing harmful content. If your report is successful, the troll may be temporarily suspended or their account might be banned entirely (8).

Bots, on the other hand, are automated programs used to engage on social media. These bots behave in an either partially or fully autonomous fashion and are often designed to mimic human users. Some social media bots provide useful services, such as weather updates and sports scores. These ‘good’ social media bots are clearly identified as such and the people who interact with them know that they are bots. However, a large number of social media bots are malicious bots disguised as human users. (9) To demonstrate how real these accounts can seem, The Daily Show and Trevor Noah recently created a bot account called @BidenInsultBot who when you mention in a tweet will reply back with an automated insult. (10) Cyborgs are on the other hand, accounts that blend automated activity with human input.

Artificial intelligence (AI) technology and video auditing software like Deepfakes is another type of medium which can be used to create false information through facial mapping. This video featuring Barack Obama and several other recognised public figures is a good demonstration of that (11). Considering this type of technology, shouldn’t we all question how facial data is being gathered about us? Facial recognition software is currently on multiple digital platforms including Facebook and many mobile applications (12).

Health hashtags also play a fundamental role in the spread of fake news, with some social media platforms like Instagram recently recognising the need to reduce the number of deceitful hashtags by banning #VaccinesCauseAutism. (13). In the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak, Facebook and Google are also doing their part to redirect users to the World Health Organisation on various public health searches like #CoronaVirus which provides a link at the top of returned search results. Facebook is also exploring the spread of misinformation in online communities (14).

Just like good hand hygiene is important to control the rapid spread of the Coronavirus, so too is learning how to sanitise our newsfeed. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet and take careful precautions before sharing anything with your loved ones. Whilst the web and social media are undeniably powerful tools to promote positive action and spread factual news to debunk myths it can also be an incredibly dangerous place, therefore do whatever you can as a good digital citizen to become empowered with the right information. Stay safe.

During this 60-minute Twitter chat, we invite everyone to share their views about fake news relating to the Coronavirus outbreak in South Africa. Our transcript will be recorded on the hashtag #hcsmSA and made publicly available afterwards on

Resources to follow and share from on social media:
National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) –
National Department of Health Coronavirus Information Resource Hub –
Africa CDC Prevention Information Resource Hub –
World Health Organisation Information Resource Hub –
WHO Regional Office for Africa Information Resource Hub –
Centres for Disease Control (CDC) –
South African National Government –
London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine FutureLearn Course –

11. Tricked by the fake Obama video? Deepfake technology explained:

  1. Chats are public. Even if you use a platform like, they still show on your timeline. Think before you tweet! Read more about maintaining a good digital footprint here.
  2. Please respect other members of the community and show courtesy at all times.
    Refer to the Twitter Terms and Conditions of use. Disrespectful behaviour can be reported.
  3. Don’t be afraid to lurk, although participation is always encouraged, even if the topic is not within your expertise, your voice matters.
  4. Visit to check out the analytics and transcript which is open to the public.
  5. If you don’t understand a question from the moderator, don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for clarity!
  6. Use this opportunity to network with other stakeholders and follow them on Twitter.
  7. When entering the Twitter chat, first introduce yourself and tell other members what you do so they get to know you.
  8. If you agree with a members perspective in a chat, go ahead and retweet (RT) them to show you support their idea.
  9. The chat runs for 60 minutes, but you can join in at any time.
  10. Start answers with the relevant T’s and number for transcript purposes.
  11. Answer each question after the moderator prompts but keep answers coming even if we move onto the next one. We don’t want to miss out on your views!
  12. Both panel experts and attendees are invited to participate because everyone’s perspective counts.
  13. Use the hashtag (#hcsmSA) in all of your tweets or you won’t be visible in the chat.
  14. More information about how to participate in a Twitter chat can be read here

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