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The changing face of Covid misinformation in South Africa: 2020 to 2022 in review

Fact-checkers aren’t seeing anywhere near the volume of false information about Covid-19 as we did in the heyday of the pandemic. But as fears about the virus recede, other health concerns and the rumours that go with them soon increase.

It seems like a lifetime ago since the coronavirus first made news headlines.

South Africa reported its first case of Covid-19 on 5 March 2020. These were busy times for Africa Check. We noticed a surge in false information about Covid-19 shared on social media platforms like Facebook and messaging service WhatsApp. 

We saw panic buying as people stocked up on essential items, including toilet paper. This was often fuelled by false reports about certain items being either low in stock or banned altogether. A number of unsubstantiated warnings around alcohol restrictions, for example, resulted in long queues outside liquor stores across the country. 

As South Africa learns how to live with Covid, perhaps even emerging into a post-pandemic society, how (if at all) has misinformation around the virus shifted? And what topics could potentially take its place? 

Fewer people reading Covid-related fact-checks 

As one of our tools, we use Google Analytics to collect data about user numbers and page views on Africa Check’s website. This helps us to track trends over time.

In 2020, when Covid-19 dominated headlines for most of the year, we saw the highest number of visitors to our website yet – over 8 million. As people struggled to sort fact from fiction about the virus, our website became a key resource

Six out of our 10 most read fact-checks that year dealt with Covid-19, attracting nearly 2 million page views.

These included claims that Bill Gates had predicted Covid-19, that African skin was resistant to the virus, and that symptoms of Covid-19 were really the common cold. 

But by the following year, interest in Covid-19-related misinformation seemed to wane. Just three out of the top 10 most-viewed fact-checks in 2021 dealt with the virus, with related page views falling off a cliff.

While these figures could indicate “Covid fatigue”, it could also highlight that by 2021, it was easier to access verified information about the virus, how it spread, and what the symptoms were. 

But a key reason why misinformation continues to spread is its ability to adapt. While the share of some false claims decreased, new ones began to mutate and spread. We began debunking claims about the alcohol ban in South Africa, the efficacy of Covid testing kits, and of course, Covid vaccines

At times, ambiguous and fast-changing rules around the management of Covid-19 may have harmed public trust and provided fertile ground for misinformation. This was evident in the uptick in false claims about lockdown restrictions in South Africa.

Similarly, the speed at which a number of Covid vaccines were developed caused concern about their safety. False claims that they would make you test positive for HIV or were produced a year before the Covid-19 virus emerged sought to capitalise on this fear. 

That’s why it's so important that governments and international health organisations make every effort to ensure up-to-date and reliable information about Covid-19 and other diseases is readily available. Doing so will limit the potential for misinformation to spread.  

South Africans less ‘worried’ about Covid-19

Shifting focus to 2022, the picture again looked very different. We were still fact-checking the odd Covid-19 claim, but they didn’t feature as high on our list. 

This is in line with data from market research company Ipsos which shows South Africans were notably less worried about Covid in 2022 than they were in 2020 or 2021. 

Almost 50% of South African respondents named Covid as one of their top concerns in April 2020. This figure declined in the months that followed and stood at 24% in December 2020.

By August 2021, economic concerns had overtaken Covid in South Africa, and globally. 

Peeking into Covid misinformation on WhatsApp

Fact-checking on WhatsApp has always been a challenge. End-to-end encryption means we’re not sure what misinformation is being shared on the platform until it goes viral. 

People also tend to be more trusting of the information they receive on WhatsApp because it comes from family and friends. 

But claims submitted to Africa Check’s WhatsApp lines give us clues. 

An analysis of messages sent to the Africa Check WhatsApp and What’s Crap on WhatsApp? lines show Covid-19 was the most prevalent concern in 2020 and 2021, tailing off in 2022. Other popular topics included health, crime, politics and scams. These claims ranged from miracle cures and alarming messages of new types of drugs at school, to posters about political protests and fake giveaways.

The graph below shows how the prevalence of these topics has shifted each year.

While claims relating to crime, politics and scams were more prevalent in 2022 than the two preceding years, we were still receiving coronavirus-related claims, just fewer.

Vaccine hesitancy, health misinformation in general still a challenge

Many of the remaining Covid claims could be chalked up to vaccine hesitancy, or the delay in acceptance of or refusal of vaccination despite the availability of these services. 

Covid vaccines were introduced in South Africa on 17 February 2021. As of 11 December 2022, a little over 38 million vaccines had been administered in the country with a population of 60.6 million people.

But we continued to debunk claims that Covid vaccines caused heart disease and ovarian cancer, that they didn’t work, or were generally unsafe

Although we were seeing fewer claims related directly to Covid-19, there were signs that the fight against health misinformation was not over. 

For example, as the South African government introduced social relief of distress grants to assist those financially affected by the pandemic, false claims that the grant was linked to vaccination status or that they were being paid through Facebook began spreading. 

Fears about the possibility of another large pandemic were also evident. Claims about other disease outbreaks, such as mpox (previously monkeypox), typhoid, and Marburg fever have been shared with similar panic as Covid-related claims.

Mpox cases have been reported since May 2022 in several different countries and Africa Check has debunked numerous false claims about the outbreak, including that mpox is related to the Covid vaccine and spreads faster among men who have sex with men.  

Lessons learned

While South Africans may have learnt to live with Covid-19, health misinformation is still a major challenge, born out of a lack of readily available information, fear and anxiety, and mistrust in authorities. 

And as we address one aspect of health misinformation, others often appear. How can fact-checkers guard against this whack-a-mole approach? 

Media literacy, like that offered by Africa Check, could be the starting point. It gives audiences the skills and tools necessary to identify and combat misinformation on their own.

When people are not sure where to turn for information they can trust, it makes them vulnerable to misinformation and disinformation. Authorities therefore also have a role to play in ensuring reliable information is easily accessible to the public. Clearly communicating the reasons behind certain actions and policies will build public trust.

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