Stephen Donald Birch, a real estate developer, is probably among the first handful of people to ever be charged for spreading fake news (misinformation/disinformation) under the newly amended regulations of South Africa’s Disaster Management Act which aims to help the country contain the spread of COVID-19. In a video he distributed on social media, Stephen claims that the COVID-19 test kits that South Africa is about to use for mass screening and testing are contaminated.

He further advised people to refuse to be tested.

To cut a long story short, Stephen is now facing a criminal charge for distributing fake news and misrepresenting the South African government’s efforts regarding COVID-19.

Decades ago, long before cigarette boxes had warning labels, their advertising (looking back) was, to put it mildly, exaggerated. You could in effect argue that this type of advertising back then, and some nowadays, also qualifies as "fake news." But that is a topic to be discussed on another day. 📷 Viceroy cigarettes advert claiming dentists recommend them. Nevermind the fact that cigarettes discolour your teeth.

This got me thinking: believing and even producing fake news (to learn the difference between misinformation and disinformation, listen to this discussion I had with Dr. Vukosi Marivate who is a Data Scientist) doesn’t seem to discriminate on whether one is wealthy or poor, educated or not, or even access to the Internet (i.e. the vast amount of information that you can use to fact-check). It seems that it is all about narratives, and very little about facts.

As someone who studies narratives and tries to deconstruct what makes narratives trump facts, over the years I have been studying the works of Dr. Ajit Maan and Dr. Howard Gambrill Clark (to name a few), I have come to realize that several ingredients make narratives, even the most false and outrageous ones that can easily be proved to be fake with just a simple Google Search, to e believable and go viral.

The first and arguably most important ingredient is that it must be a story, as opposed to presenting facts and data. The more emotions in the story, even better. It seems we somehow, by default, we as humans connect better with stories than we do with data. Secondly, a narrative (even fake ones) appears to persuade more easily if we already hold a certain bias for the story being told, therefore, it merely confirms our bias - what we already, at some level, factual or not, held as true. Lastly, if somehow the person trying to peddle a fake news narrative manages to make you see yourself as part of the story, even better, you are even more likely to believe what they say.

Towards the end of the 1920s, women had won their right to vote in the United States. At the same time, the women’s liberation movement was gaining momentum. In those times, it was frowned upon for women to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. As such, some tobacco companies took advantage of the women's liberation movement and started marketing cigarettes as a women's "torches of freedom." Of course, they didn't care much for women's liberation, they just needed a new market segment to expand into for growth. A great illustration of how narratives, however false, can spread quickly. 📷 Lucky Strike advertisement, 1929

Of course, this is by no means an exhaustive list of what makes fake news narratives so believable. However, I hope it gives you an idea of how to evaluate any new narrative you come across to ensure that you are not being hoodwinked.

Now, imagine adding the speed and scale of social media to a fake news narrative, now you understand how easy it is for such narratives to find their target audience that in turn will help them spread further. Now you understand, I hope, why some people can be fooled by the narrative that 5G is responsible for spreading COVID-19.

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