There is indeed a serious problem of misinformation, alarmist type information and general fake news regarding the COVID 19 pandemic. I am thus going to assume the president is sincere in wanting to protect the country from this ‘infodemic’ as the World Health Organisation called it.
Towards the end of his address announcing total lockdown of the country last night, President Emmerson Mnangagwa said:
Furthermore, legal instruments are being put in place to deal with and punish those who cause unnecessary alarm and despondency through social and other media, during this emergency. We all need to act responsibly.
Laws against expression are dangerous
I understand how fake news and alarmist content can be a nuisance or sometimes even lead to public harm. The problem with information and legislating against information though is that there is no clear line to draw. Who judges whether something is alarmist or not, what criteria do they use?
We are subjective beings therefore our tendency will always be to harshly judge any information we don’t agree with. Just spend a day on Twitter and you’ll see how folks can be so blinkered in their lane that they start thinking any divergent view does not deserve to exist. Just like how everyone driving slower than you is an infuriating snail and everyone driving faster than you is a lunatic daredevil.
Now, imagine when a few of us are put in charge of policing conversation. Policing the roads is easy, we can measure the speed at which any vehicle is traveling and compare it to our rule book. What is the standard for information though? Truth itself is a deep philosophical construct that we can’t wrap our heads around. Like Pilate asked 2 000 years ago, “What is truth?”
So called alarmists saved lives from COVID 19 in USA
Right now the United States has the most confirmed cases of COVID 19. They are not doing too well in this battle at all but it could have been worse. The country’s president was tweeting only a few weeks ago how COVID 19 was nothing serious and how the common cold kills more people than COVID ever could.
If it hadn’t been for ‘alarmists’ on Twitter who kept raising the alarm that this was a very serious issue then we probably could be talking about magnitudes more cases in America today. Some testing facilities were actually forced by the government to shut down but they shared their findings anyway.
The work they did and shared on Twitter helped all around the world to understand how this novel coronavirus has such a long incubation period and how people can spread it for weeks without showing any symptoms.
These Twitter alarmists are the ones that convinced a number of companies in California and a few other places in the US to insist workers work from home. This they did before the government even woke up to the seriousness of the threat. Big events were cancelled because ‘alarmists’ raised the alarm. As far as the government was concerned, these were alarmists. Imagine if the US government had a law at its disposal against ‘alarmists!’
We can’t count how many lives were saved because some people expressed themselves on Twitter. Hack at that time we wanted to send some of our staffers to the US for one of the tech conferences that got cancelled as a result of ‘alarmists’ sounding alarm…
But isn’t there a problem of fake news?
There is definitely a big problem of fake news particularly on social media. There are people out there feeding conspiracy theories and pushing ridiculous remedies against COVID 19. How then does the country fight the infodemic? Well earlier in his address the president actually gave a more effective solution.
The better way
Earlier in his address President Mnangagwa said:
Since information is key to the fight against the pandemic, I have directed Ministries of Health and Child Care and that of Information, Publicity and Broadcasting Services to work closely together in ensuring that our communities are kept aware and comprehensively informed about the pandemic.
The best way to fight misinformation is to provide information. The reason people listen to anything and everything is because there is a vacuum in the government’s information strategy. When the government is caught in silly lies like the one the health minister was caught in regarding Zororo Makamba who later died, it creates space for informal sources of information which also come with the risk of misinformation.
In the Zororo Makamba scenario would the journalists who were reporting that Zororo (who went to so many places and was with so many people just days before he succumbed to the disease) was infected been labeled as misinformers and alarmists since the official word from the highest ranking health official in the country was that these were falsehoods?
Yes President ED is right, there is need for information to be disseminated effectively. Real information not propaganda or hollow verbose discourses from the likes of George Charamba. Let’s start with information on how much capacity the country has to test, track and treat those infected. How many have actually been tested and how many really have tested positive?
As long as the government keeps feeding us lies then fake news is going to remain a big problem. Everyone will be: “Yeah they said that but what is really going on?” As long as that’s the reaction to (mis)information from the government then no law can stem out fake news or alarmist information or whatever else is out there. How have the laws against changing money (forex trading) fared?