The use of social media has been increasing tremendously over the past decade, and everyone frequently visits those platforms, as they have become part of our life. South Africa’s total population is over 60 million, and approximately 28 million people use social media, which is 46.4% of the total population from the start of 2022. (South, 2022) For example, Facebook is one of the largest social media platforms, with over 2.5 billion monthly users in 2021. According to the 2022 statistics, over 86% of social media users are active on Facebook in Africa. (Statcounter, 2022)YouTube, Instagram, and Tik Tok follow closely behind with billions of monthly users. (Robinson, 2022) However, the concern is whether we can trust the news on social media and view them as reliable sources. Considering the increased popularity of social media, many users may encounter misinformation or disinformation daily.
Identifying Misinformation and Disinformation:
With the increasing social media usage, we are bound to encounter fake news, as anyone can post anything without fact-checking. There are two kinds of false information: misinformation and disinformation. In terms of definitions, misinformation regards false or misleading content, for example, clickbait headlines, fabricated results, and conspiracy theories. In comparison, disinformation is spreading misinformation deliberately. They are created to deceive users and readers (Library Guides: News: Fake News, Misinformation & Disinformation, 2022). The South African government announced that anyone who spreads false news about the Coronavirus is liable for prosecution. Their government’s website also provided a page called “Real411,” which allows the public to report and verify misinformation. An example of fake news on that website would be stating that the lockdown is from December 2nd, 2020, to January 22, 2021. (Fake News - Coronavirus COVID-19 | South African Government, 2019) The Real411 platform allows anyone to report misinformation, hate speech, incitement, and harassment and particularly focusing on posts surrounding COVID-19.
People spread false information for several reasons, such as acquiring sponsorships. Some influencers make money by promoting a particular product for a company; hence, there are many advertisements on social media platforms. The power of social media presents an ability to share information and communicate with anyone worldwide; thus, we need to be mindful and think critically of what we read on our home feed. We need to acknowledge that there’s an algorithm on social media filtered based on our interests and search histories. (Fake News on Social Media | Mailchimp, 2022)
While social media can become a source of disinformation, it can be beneficial as it’s a great tool when combined with healthcare, as it generates social networks for resources. A study analyzed the strategies people used to learn about COVID-19 through questionnaires. The findings demonstrated that 76% of the participants used social media to learn about the virus and pandemic. In addition, many healthcare professionals have stated that social media can be a great and effective tool to communicate and inform the public about the safety measures one needs to take to stop and limit the spread of the virus. (How to Use Social Media in Healthcare: A Guide for Health Professionals, 2021) For example, Health Canada and South Africa’s health government shared posts regarding practices to stop the spread of coronavirus, like frequently washing your hands, a social distance of 2 meters, and wearing masks. Also, many health departments, such as the one in South Africa, share vaccine information and have tried to dismiss any related myths or rumors. As well as providing statistics for recovery cases, those who have taken vaccines, and new cases. Their account allows Instagram users and followers to keep track of the news and stay updated on the pandemic. (@Sacoronavirus.co.za) There’s a new feature on Instagram, COVID-19 Information Centre, generated for users to find credible COVID-19 details, including; vaccine eligibility, prevention strategies, and common vaccine myths, from health professionals. Users can be notified when new posts or stories are shared, resulting in a practical approach to informing the public. Suppose posts on this media platform spread deceptive claims about the pandemic and vaccines, they will be removed after an evaluation from health experts like the World Health Organization. This COVID-19 information center on Instagram ensures accessibility to reliable information as the pandemic continues and is available in the United States, United Kingdom, India, Cile, Germany, and France. (Instagram, 2021)
When trying to derive statistics for non-communicable diseases, global organizations, such as World Health Organization, are great tools to get accurate and updated information (Noncommunicable Diseases, 2017). They can provide information and a better understanding of non-communicable diseases, the South Africa Government is another reliable and trustworthy source. They have links available which provide more profound knowledge on the particular topic (What Is a Non-Communicable Disease? | South African Government, 2022). Lastly, the SA NCD Alliance is another efficient tool to seek news on issues relating to NCDs in South Africa. This non-governmental organization was formed in 2014, and they have a range of resources that monitor areas in NCD and advocate for prevention and treatments. This organization is a reliable source as it has over 15 partners that are part of the organization's stakeholders. Additionally, their website explicitly details their goals and aims for the future (SANCDA+).
Social media may present several concerns, for example, misinformation and disinformation. However, it does have its benefits when spreading and informing accurate sources to the public from health professionals. It can be an effective tool for many users to take advantage of social media's power. Thus, one must recognize and keep an open mind while on the app. While considering whether the information is trustworthy or unreliable, one must ask questions and research and not solely trust one source. It’s important to keep an open mind. A few questions can help identify misinformation or disinformation: Is the influencer being paid or sponsored by posting this information? Does the account user include emotional claims on that post? Is the information coming from a reputable source? A few reputable sources can be the South African Government, South Africa Health Department, and World Health Organization (WHO).
Ionnie Choy is a 4th-year student majoring in Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. She is passionate about topics regarding mental health and substance use among adolescents.