The political economy of Covid-19 rumours in Cape Town

South Africa took an early stand to try and limit fake news around the Covid-19, by making the spread of false information on the virus a crime. This stance recognises the importance of clear and accurate health messaging around the virus – misinformation and disinformation can have lethal consequences. But it also risks ignoring the political economy of information.

Over the last four weeks, we have been running Lockdown Diaries, a project with 70 participants across occupied buildings, informal settlements, townships and suburbs in Cape Town.

We have been asking participants to share with us their stories from the lockdown, and its impact on their everyday lives via WhatsApp. Our connections with participants build on existing relationships, through social and research networks. Participants are diverse in terms of their gender, age, race and class.

The wealth of information that is currently available on Covid-19 has become apparent in these diaries. What is equally apparent, however, is the sheer variety of sources and messages. Reflecting on the reliability of what they receive, people have generally stated that they tend to trust information on the television and radio. This fits with Afrobarometer findings in 2018, which suggest that 57% of South Africans reported that they trusted the state broadcasters “somewhat” or “a lot”, whereas 62% reported the same for private broadcasters.

Amongst our participants, such trust in television and radio seems to be higher than trust in social media platforms. As Gift, from Imizamo Yethu, put it, “from the news I think it's reliable, but from the internet anything can be unreliable, so I don't put much attention to it”. Nozuko, from Siyahlala, agreed, “I trust the [information] from Radio and TV. The social media one makes me confused”.

Not everyone in South Africa, however, has the luxury of owning a television. According to the 2011 census, 26% did not have a television in their household. As Nonceba, from Khayelitsha, explains, “my community people have little knowledge about Covid-19 because some have no television to watch news”. In other words, access to information is determined by class.

Recognising this, the government and the WHO has set up a zero-rated WhatsApp line and a website for information but, to date, these have not been mentioned by our participants.

Moreover, WhatsApp connections also depend on having a smartphone that can be regularly charged. In 2018, an estimated 35% of South Africans owned a smartphone. In 2017, 16% of households lacked a connection to the electricity grid (and this does not count those who cannot afford to top up their prepaid meter). Local organisations have started distributing leaflets and this may start to play an important role in the flow of information.

For those who do have smartphone access, social media and WhatsApp have provided access to many messages that echo the government and WHO-issued guidance on Covid-19. However, online platforms have also been a fertile ground for rumours, which the government classifies as “fake news”.

Tackling these rumours and their negative effects is important but, as anthropologist Maryam Yahya highlighted in her study of the rejection of polio vaccines in Northern Nigeria, rumours cannot just be dismissed as illogical stories to be addressed with more “education”. Such an apolitical approach ignores the fact that these stories often speak to what Yahya identifies as “wider issues of distrust and anxiety, which must not be swept under the carpet”.

Alongside globally sourced speculations that Covid-19 was caused by 5G, a wireless cellular technology where China has a big stake, there were two subsets of rumours people mentioned in their diaries.

One expanded the range of modes of Covid-19 transmission beyond those which have been scientifically proven. Key here was the idea that vaccines and tests for Covid-19 were allegedly contaminated with the disease and would be used to spread infection.

Zizipho, for example, in Ramaphosa stated, “[President] Ramaphosa is going to send tests of this corona virus. But people don't trust it. Because there are videos that say it's a fake test and it will make people sick. So people are panicking now”. Lilly, from Woodstock, made a similar observation, “People are saying... [the] vaccine that the people said...will come to us could be dangerous”.

Such rumours suggest that people do not trust the government to act in their best interests. This should come as little surprise: in the poorer areas of Cape Town where these stories were most prevalent, people’s living conditions serve as a daily reminder of the government’s broken promises. As studies of Ebola responses in Sierra Leone and cholera responses in Zimbabwe have demonstrated, issues of political trust are not set aside in times of health crisis: they are amplified.

If people do not trust the government, then information from sources that they know personally may seem more believable. In addition to this postcolonial breach of trust, South Africa must also reckon with its colonial and apartheid past during which public health interventions reflected and bolstered the priorities of white supremacy.

The other subset of rumours did the opposite: it narrowed the range of modes of virus transmission. Nathi, in Imizamo Yethu, for example,  reported that “The people of the community have mythical beliefs that the virus is a curse from God to destroy the white people, not the black people, meaning they think that the virus can't affect their race which is the black people”.

This story, as Nathi tells it,  is a script of resistance: the belief in a God who is vengeful against oppressors, intervening in the context of a long history of racial oppression.  

On the other hand, the idea of “black immunity” has historically been used very differently, grounded in racist ideas of racial difference. Historian Rana Hogarth, for example, has demonstrated how false ideas of black immunity to yellow fever in the 18th Century United States had lethal consequences for African Americans. Setting aside their subversive potential,  current day speculations can have real and lethal consequences.

Ultimately, as literary scholars James Ogude and Grace Musila have shown us, rumour is fickle in its relationship to power: sometimes, rumours can be ways of subverting and challenging power, sometimes they can be used to reinforce power structures, and sometimes they operate somewhere in the murky middle. Either way, we need to take these stories seriously.  What we conventionally name “fake news” is not simply false, it is also inherently political and need to be treated as such.

The lockdown diaries in our study are a reminder that fake news does not spread because people are irrational. How we make sense of rumours and how the latter affect us is influenced by our material conditions, our experiences and our understandings of the world.

If we want to improve the information about Covid-19 that people have access to and find believable, we need to pay greater attention to the political and economic context in which knowledge circulates. Studies have shown that the South African government has been one of the most reliable in the world when it comes to disseminating news on Covid-19. But if officials want to their messages to be taken seriously, they need to be trusted, and trust is not given, it is earned.

Fiona Anciano is an associate professor in political studies at the University of the Western Cape.

SJ Cooper-Knock is a lecturer at the University of Edinburgh.

Mmeli Dube is an activist in Cape Town and a political studies PhD candidate at the University of the Western Cape.

Mfundo Majola is a political studies master's candidate and a researcher at University of the Western Cape.

Boitumelo M. Papane is a political studies master's candidate and a researcher at the University of the Western Cape, and an Andrew Mellon Foundation scholar.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect Corona Times' editorial stance, or the position of any institution or association.

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