Fake news has resulted in deaths in the past. Will it do so again?

In a weekend video, Stephen Birch said swabs used to test for Covid-19 were contaminated

HE NOSE? Stephen Birch appeared in court on Tuesday for allegedly sharing ‘fake news’ about the coronavirus in SA. Image: Screengrab
If you haven’t met Stephen Birch, let me introduce you to him. Birch is from Durbanville, Cape Town. He is 55 and potentially facing jail time.

At the weekend he recorded and published a video in which he said people should not allow themselves to be tested for the deadly coronavirus (or Covid-19, the respiratory illness the virus causes) because the testing swabs were contaminated.

I was seething when a press release from the Gauteng health department landed on my desk on Monday night. It was encouraging people to be tested (fair enough, that’s standard), but then this line popped up: “Today our screening and testing teams have had to plead with community members, who have refused to take part in the screening and testing drive due to a misleading video which has gone viral.”

This is the danger of fake news.

Allegedly because of Stephen Birch – and others, I’m sure – people refused to be tested on Monday. Some of the most vulnerable in SA’s society would not be screened because of this nonsensical conspiracy theory.

If you’ve ever wondered why fake news is so dangerous, why sharing those videos and posts and messages on WhatsApp or other social media is so reckless, this is why.

People believe them and act on them, and others suffer as a result.

I wonder how many people who refused sampling on Monday will get sick, how many they will infect and how many will die. How many breadwinners will be lost? How many mothers, fathers, gogos, oupas, children, siblings and friends will no longer be with us because of fake news?

A few years ago, Times Select’s print predecessor, The Times, wrote about a man, Mlungisi Nxumalo, who was murdered because of a fake WhatsApp message that claimed foreigners were kidnapping children. He was accused of having a young girl locked in the boot of his car. A mob at the Pinetown taxi rank in Durban set upon him. He was attacked and killed, and so was a man who tried to defend him.

There was no girl in his boot. He wasn’t a foreigner.

He was looking after his best friend’s child, while the boy’s dad went to buy a snack for the drive home. The child, who was mentally ill, acted out while his father was in the informal market. That was enough for the mob.

Fake news triggered the killing of two people. And that was horrific enough.

It has repeatedly started xenophobic violence in SA’s townships. People have been burnt and shops looted; livelihoods wiped out. And that was horrific enough.

Fake news during the coronavirus pandemic has the potential to do so much damage.

President Cyril Ramaphosa and health minister Zweli Mkhize have spoken of the terror that could be unleashed should Covid-19 take hold in densely populated areas, especially those where TB and other illnesses already have a grip. Thousands … tens of thousands …  are at risk.

If people aren’t tested or screened, if they spread the virus far and wide, we’ve got a disaster on our hands.

Birch appeared in the Cape Town magistrate’s court on Tuesday and is due in the dock again on July 14.

According to the police, he was charged in terms of regulation 11(5)(c) of the Disaster Management Act, in relation to “publishing any statement through any medium, including social media, with the intention to deceive any other person about measures by the government to address Covid-19”.

This is a life and death situation. May the government continue clamping down on fake news distributors.

Matthew Savides – TimesLIVE

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