Disinformation – now you can report it

Both disinformation and misinformation can cause harm, but one is intentional

Donald Trump may have coined the expression “fake news”, but the concept has been around a lot longer. From free airline tickets offered on Facebook to cures for COVID-19 circulating on WhatsApp, unless you’ve been living under a rock you’ve probably been the recipient of disinformation or misinformation at some point. What’s the difference?

Disinformation

Disinformation is intentional, it is “false information which is intended to mislead, especially propaganda issued by a government organisation to a rival power or the media.” Digital disinformation, furthermore, is: “false, inaccurate, or misleading information designed, presented and promoted online to intentionally cause public harm.” 

Misinformation

Misinformation is also defined as “false or inaccurate information, especially that which is deliberately intended to deceive”; but to differentiate it from disinformation, it has come to mean unintentional false information. However, misinformation can and often does have its roots in disinformation. For example, false information may be fed to the public via social media, and from there it is picked up and recirculated by any number of unsuspecting users who trust the information because it came from a friend. In the early days of lockdown, a WhatsApp message went viral, purporting to be the words of a doctor based at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town, about COVID-19. He took to Twitter to deny authorship, and his rebuttal was published online by a reputable news agency. He felt compelled to do that because the message had spread round the country on WhatsApp groups in a day.

Scams

A scam is a form of disinformation, but its meaning is more limited. A scam is a fraudulent scheme, usually intended for the profit of the scamster. Along the way, gullible individuals are harmed, at least financially, but the impact is nowhere near as pervasive or subversive as disinformation.

Why is disinformation so dangerous?

Real411 is an organisation set up to allow members of the public to report incidents of disinformation. In the words of Real411, disinformation is dangerous because it is “…biased information that deliberately misleads by manipulated facts or narrative. What appears to be truth can sometimes be propaganda being peddled to sway public opinion with the intent to cause harm. Disinformation can cause public harm where it is published with the intention to interfere with or infringe the public’s right to make informed decisions about matters of public importance or matters of public interest. This in turn affects the public’s right to participate fully and effectively in society.”

Fearmongering

Disinformation can disrupt elections or spread fear. The latter is a particular concern at the moment, as our government struggles to convey accurate information about COVID-19 in the face of widespread mis- and disinformation. We are all particularly vulnerable to disinformation where there are heightened emotions, complex issues at stake, and where none of us really know very much about the subject. It becomes very easy for unscrupulous individuals to use our fear and their disinformation for gain, e.g. to sell sanitisers and, worse, unfounded “cures”. 

President Ramaphosa said, back in March, “While we are battling a contagious virus, perhaps the greatest dangers to our country at this time are fear and ignorance. We must appreciate the extent of the threat that this disease presents. We must accept the anxiety that it causes amongst our people, but we cannot allow ourselves to be overwhelmed with fear and panic. We should stop spreading fake and unverified news, and create further apprehension and alarm amongst South Africans.” The government has taken the arguably extreme step of criminalising those who intentionally deceive people about COVID-19, because mis- and disinformation puts people’s lives at risk.

What can you do about it?

Unfortunately, three months later disinformation is still with us. But the good news is, now there is something you can do about it. To stop the spread of disinformation, if you see something online that doesn’t look right to you, report it to Real411.org.za. You will need to indicate whether your complaint refers to misinformation or disinformation, hate speech, incitement to violence, or journalist harassment, along with where you saw it and what language it is in.

The complaint will be reviewed by the Digital Complaints Committee, which consists of a legal expert, a digital expert and a media expert. If the complaint is upheld, the recourse will include one or more of the following (in the case of disinformation): 

  • Online platforms will be approached for assistance to take down content
  • A fact-checking organisation will be approached for verification
  • Counter-narratives will be published in response to the harmful false information

COVID-19 disinformation

If the disinformation relates to COVID-19, the action will include:

  • Content will be referred to the platform(s) for removal
  • Counter-narratives will be quickly issued and the mis/disinformation flagged on social media
  • The case may be escalated to SAPS for further action

The law tightens

We also welcome the news that Parliament’s Select Committee on Security and Justice has adopted the Cybercrimes Bill. This will align our cybersecurity legislation with the rest of the world. The Cybercrimes and Cybersecurity Bill criminalises the theft and interference of data and the distribution of harmful data messages. Harmful messaging includes:

  • A message that incites damage to property or violence
  • A message that threatens persons with damage to property or violence
  • A message that unlawfully contains an intimate image

Cyberbullying

We’ve written before about cyberbullying, which can cause tremendous distress and, in extreme cases, even lead to suicide. The Protection from Harassment Act 2011 covers electronic as well as physical harassment but, until now, we have not had specific legislation dealing with digital harassment. We welcome the new bill, which will also be the first non-binary legislation to be passed in South Africa. We will keep you informed and let you know when it is enacted (i.e. becomes law).

If you are the victim of disinformation or cyber crime

If you spot something you think is disinformation, contact Real411 or contact us. We will help you report it. If you are suffering digital harassment, contact us and we will review your situation and advise you of your rights, arranging a protection order if appropriate. Contact Simon on 086 099 5146 or simon@sdlaw.co.za today for more information or to make an appointment. We now offer online consultations. We’ll call you back and schedule a meeting at a time that suits you, on the platform of your choosing.

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