MEDIA RELEASE 09 April 2020
ISSUED BY: Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change / #careZA
A unique peek into how South Africans are responding to the Covid-19 crisis on social media is revealing the dynamics of social cohesion across the country. Cutting edge social media analytics are being used to weed out bizarre examples of mis-information, and some deliberate dis-information, that is being spread as the pandemic unfolds.
A research unit attached to the Centre for Analytics and Behaviour Change (CABC) at the University of Cape Town's Graduate School of Business is seeking answers to this critical question: Are we fighting the virus as a strong nation bound together by adversity, or is the pandemic magnifying long-standing disparities in our society that threaten our social cohesion?
The unit is undertaking ground-breaking research into public social media conversations to spot the early signs of dissent and discord within communities quickly.
The findings highlight potentially inflammatory issues, and locates them within specific geographic areas, so that urgent corrective or remedial measures can be applied to avoid widespread social discord.
The project is also unearthing how mis-information and "fake news" is influencing what South Africans think about the Covid-19 crisis.
Head of the research team, Dee Vos, says the findings will pinpoint problematic issues that require immediate intervention to consolidate social cohesion among communities.
"We are only tracking and analysing social media posts which are in the public domain," says Dee. "The research team can provide a comprehensive daily report on what South Africans are thinking and saying about the Covid-19 outbreak, as close to real-time as possible.
"We are focusing our attention on identifying and measuring two things as the Covid-19 crisis deepens: the level of social cohesion in our country, and the extent to which disinformation is influencing, and in some cases determining, what people think, say and do. "This will allow authorities, NGOs and other key social players to take remedial action quickly and prevent disunity and chaos before it takes root."
The project uses digital tools to identify and measure social media conversations across several public platforms over 24 hours. The information is assimilated and analysed overnight to generate a snapshot of how people from all walks of life are responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. Researchers identify the day's trending Covid-19 related topics and measure the number of people who actively engaged in the issue. They use these metrics to determine whether South Africans are standing together against Covid-19, or whether the pandemic is causing cracks in the country's social cohesion.
The research team has identified several instances of mis-information (posts or comments which are simply factually incorrect, and can cause harm) and dis-information (calculated posts which are deliberately misleading and designed to create fear, panic or chaos). The team has also found that conspiracy theories around the Covid-19 outbreak are rampant in South Africa's social media space - ranging from the influence of 5G networks to the involvement of Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
The information gathered for daily reports are compiled into weekly trend reports. Daily reports will be published on the CABC’s website by 12:00 noon daily and can be viewed at www.cabc.org.za . The website also lists the instances of mis- and dis- information, and details some of the narratives surrounding prevailing conspiracy theories.
"The reports on our website will help ordinary people, NGOs, government and other authorities to understand trends in what South Africans were thinking, saying and doing in the past 24 hours and in the past week," says Dee.
"We want to help people to deal with the facts and the truth, and to do that we have to identify fiction and lies, deliberate falsehoods and calculated disinformation as they emerge.
"This also applies to the many consipracy theories out there right now. Our website lists them, so that people can engage with the information and spot the deception for themselves.
"We hope that our work will help the people of our country to stand together and get through the crisis we face. We must expect the impact of Covid-19 to put unprecedented strain on our social cohesion, even though South Africans have always shown that we have a tremendous capacity to stand together when times get tough.
"Never before has there been such a need for unity among all South Africans, and mutual support between all sectors of our society. We want our research to help South Africa achieve this," says Dee.