Young South African scientists from the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) have called on their peers to be more careful and responsible when sharing information regarding the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) on social media, to combat the rise of misinformation (fake news), which may be harmful to the society.

They were speaking at a media briefing in Pretoria (South Africa) on Tuesday, 23 June 2020, organised as part of Youth Month celebrations, to showcase the significant role played by young scientists in the fight to curb the spread of COVID-19. The young researchers shared their research in cybercrime activities and the spread of misinformation during the pandemic.

Solving the social media fake news problem

Nelisiwe Dlamini (30), a young researcher said that it is important to verify stories from social media, especially those that have to do with COVID-19 before pressing the share button.

“Some of the young people are becoming instigators of the spread of false information that has the potential to create panic during the pandemic in the country.”

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Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the CSIR has created a dashboard to assist government and health institutions to track the spread of misinformation, to avoid unnecessary public panic. The dashboard categorises information as misinformation (misleading content), disinformation (fabricated content), and mal-information (hate speech content).

“Looking up the author of the story and looking for a backing from experts on the subject matter are often one’s best bets to verifying the credibility of a story or breaking news. Combatting the impact of the global COVID-19 crisis is difficult enough without the uncontrolled spread of extremely harmful content on social media platforms,” said Dlamini.

Increase in cybercrime during COVID-19

On the other hand, as learners, many employees working from home and members of the public are forced to turn to online technologies during lockdown, there are increased cyber risks involved with associated activities.

The CSIR established a Security Operations Centre (SOC), which is a facility that houses an information security team responsible for monitoring and analysing an organisation’s security risk vulnerability on an ongoing basis. The SOC’s goal is to detect, analyse and respond to cybersecurity incidents, using a combination of technology solutions and a strong set of processes for local municipalities and other entities in South Africa to protect them against phishing attacks and malware.

CSIR cybersecurity researcher, Thabo Mahlangu (30) said ,“Cybercriminals have quickly adapted to using the COVID-19 pandemic as an opportunity to launch themed attacks in vulnerable environments. To mitigate this, we have adapted a data-driven security, the SOC, approach to forecast potential malware attacks and fight against phishing attacks.”

“With employees now working remotely, connecting to employers’ networks via various online platforms brings about many security challenges. There is an increase in attempts to steal data from users, malware and phishing attempts, breaches on video conferencing platforms, and scams and fraudulent activities using digital means,” said Mahlangu.

Also speaking at the briefing was CSIR biometric researcher, Kedimotse Baruni, who showcased the organisation’s face biometric technology, which does not require an individual to be in contact with the biometric acquisition device to perform identity verification. Buruni said face biometric modalities recognition technologies curb the spread of infectious deceases, such as COVID-19.

“Identifying people at hospitals and banks using contact identification is also a concern for the spread of COVID-19. The CSIR is using its face recognition technology to assist with a contactless way of identifying people as it will reducing the need for objects such as fingerprint scanners to be touched by several people, inevitably eliminating the risk of contamination,” said Baruni. She added that the proposed identification methodology uses the eyes, mouth, jaw and nose features to identify an individual.

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